NORMAN, Okla. — Most of his roster wasn't born when the Illinois men's gymnastics team last won a national championship in 1989. But coach Justin Spring said his athletes have been aware of the tradition and expectations that come with pulling on an Illinois uniform since they arrived on campus.
"Every day this team walks into the gym and bows to the 1989 banner to leave everything out in the gym," Spring said. "They know the tradition at Illinois."
Led by U.S. Senior National Team members Paul Ruggeri and C.J. Maestas, No. 4 Illinois won the national title Friday night, posting a team score of 358.85, 1.4 points better than No. 1 Oklahoma, which failed to win the crown in its home arena. The Illini rallied from a deficit of 2.05 points in their final two events to overtake the Sooners.
"We're at a point where a lot of teams would have said it was over after the high bar, but this team rallied and had a career performance in the last two events," Spring said.
It was Illinois' third win of the season against the Sooners and the second in as many days.
The championship is the 10th for the Illini men's gymnastics team, all but two of them coming before 1959. Spring's squad is the first Illinois program to win a national championship since the men's tennis team won it all in 2003.
"I think that's exactly why they were able to do it, because they do understand the history and the commitment," said Spring, a 2006 Illinois graduate. "I've been a part of this program for 10 years and I've seen too many good teams come and go and not fill their potential. I speak to the legacy that Illinois has built over the last 100 years. I think this team took that commitment to a whole new level."
After a disastrous rotation on the high bar when two athletes stumbled, Illinois got back into the championship mix with a school-record 60.750 on the pommel horse.
Maestas finished tied for second in the all-around competition with Michigan's Sam Mikulak at 89.700. Oklahoma's Jake Dalton (91.000) was the champion.
Spring, a 12-time All-American at Illinois and a member of the U.S. national team that won a bronze medal at the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing, said Friday's championship moves to the top of his list of career achievements.
"Hands down the best," he said. "This is more special than anything I've done in my career as an athlete and I say that in all sincerity. I learned so much from this team specifically about what I love to do and I lived vicariously through all of them and they've taught me so much. When we won tonight it was like I won 21 times."
After a dinner Friday at an Oklahoma steakhouse, the Illini weren't planning a big celebration. That'll have to wait until after today's individual championships.
"We're going to try to get geared up and support the individuals," Spring said. "We're going to stay true to this team bond that we have and we'll be there 100 percent to support that."
The Illini will be busy tonight, too.
Maestas will compete for the individual crown tonight in the pommel horse, rings and parallel bars.
Ruggeri will vie for the vault and parallel bars titles.
Chad Mason, Cole Smith and Yoshi Mori all qualified in pommel horse.
Anthony Sacramento will compete on rings, and Jordan Valdez, C.J. Padera and Austin Phillips all qualified in high bar.