The collegiate gymnastics season wraps up this week with both Illini teams represented in the NCAA Championships. Staff writer Jeff Huth offers three storylines:
One thing Justin Spring won't need to worry about this week: his Illini men entering the NCAA Championships overconfident. Yes, No. 4 Illinois is coming off its fourth straight Big Ten title. But yes, the Illini also committed some uncharacteristic slip-ups on a day when none of the conference's top contenders were performing at the top of their game. "Michigan, Penn State and Illinois all made some mistakes, and fortunately we were able to persevere through them," Spring said. "I can pretty much assure (that) these (other) teams aren't going to make these mistakes at NCAA Championships. That was kind of (my) opening message (afterward): 'If we have the meet we had at Big Tens, we will not walk away with an NCAA championship trophy. And we've got to be better.' Spring expects the NCAA team title to be a five-way battle among the Big Ten's top three programs as well as No. 1 Oklahoma and No. 3 Stanford. "It's anyone's meet this year," he said. "We've done everything in our power to try to make sure it's us," Illinois has finished fourth and third in Spring's previous two seasons as head coach. The Illini last won an NCAA team title in 1989.
With three NCAA individual titles and seven All-America accolades, Paul Ruggeri is one of the most decorated gymnasts in Illini history. As the fifth-year senior approaches his final NCAA Championships, he's aware none of those accomplishments occurred in the last two years. Ruggeri had a legitimate excuse in 2011, when a season-ending ankle injury kept him out of the national meet. But the memory of the 2010 NCAA Championships still stings for the Manlius, N.Y., native. "My junior year (at NCAAs) was a disaster and an embarrassment," Ruggeri said. In that meet, his two-year reign as NCAA high bar champion ended in the preliminaries, and he finished 20th in the all-around. Ruggeri made it to the individual event finals in only one event, the parallel bars, and he ended up ninth. For the current U.S. National Team member, it was a motivating factor in his decision to return to the UI for a fifth season. "I felt unfulfilled," Ruggeri said. "I wanted redemption." Added the six-time Big Ten champion: "I stayed for the team and the atmosphere in the gym, and to be part of this fraternity that we have here as a gymnastics team," Ruggeri said. "I hope that I can help them win something (this weekend)."
On her own
For Alina Weinstein, it's a bittersweet week. The Illini junior is headed to the NCAA Championships for the second year in a row. But none of her teammates will be joining her in the competition. "It is sad to me that I'm the only one going, but hopefully I can come back (next year) and together we can all be hungry to go again." While No. 18 Illinois missed qualifying for nationals by one spot by finishing third in the Champaign Regional, Weinstein advanced as an individual by winning the all-around. Her career-high score of 39.450 equaled the fifth highest in program history. She also tied for first on balance beam with a career-best 9.900. She joined legendary Nancy Thies, a 1972 Olympian, as the only Illini women's gymnasts with a regional all-around title and with multiple regional crowns. "We train so we can peak at the end of the season, and everything just kind of came together at the last meet," Weinstein said, "and I'm very happy that it did." It's been a breakout season for Weinstein, who entered 2012 with three career titles. She now has 17. "This year, we've really seen her come into her own," Illini coach Kim Landrus said. "Shes just gradually, consistently gotten better through the year."