URBANA – The folks back home have Paul Ruggeri's cell phone working overtime these days.
Ever since a radio station in Syracuse, N.Y., picked up on the news that the Illinois freshman won an NCAA gymnastics title late Saturday in Palo Alto, Calif., Ruggeri has been fielding a steady stream of long-distance pats on the back.
"I've gotten a lot of calls from people at home, so it's been kind of nice," the Manlius, N.Y., native said Monday.
Anyone who follows gymnastics knows there's good reason – beyond the obvious – to make a fuss about Ruggeri's victory in the high bar. It's hardly a common occurrence for a freshman to leave his first NCAA Championships with an event title. At the UI, in fact, no gymnast has been a collegiate champion in his first year of competition since 1960, when Alvin Barasch (tumbling) and Ray Hadley (floor exercise) each accomplished the feat.
So even though Ruggeri was ranked No. 1 in the high bar entering the NCAA Championships, his triumph was an eye opener – especially to the Illini freshman.
"I definitely didn't think I was going to win," Ruggeri said. "I just didn't come in with the expectation it was going to happen."
He did have a strong inkling, however, after completing his routine. Ruggeri, who competed fifth in the order of high-bar finalists, scored a 15.000. It was the top figure to that point in the event, with five competitors left.
"Then I held my breath for the rest of the people," he said. "It was nerve-racking."
Especially when the last guy in the order took his turn. Ruggeri had become close friends with Stanford freshman Josh Dixon when both were members of the Junior U.S. National Team in 2006-07.
"I just knew in the back of my mind that if he was clean (with his routine), he was going to beat me," Ruggeri said.
He didn't. Ruggeri's score held up, surpassing runner-up Cole Storer (14.925) of Minnesota and the third-place Dixon (14.800). Afterward, the typically low-key Ruggeri outwardly took the triumph in stride.
Then he took some ribbing from the Illini contingent at Maples Pavilion on the Stanford University campus for his seemingly casual reaction.
"Don't get me wrong," Ruggeri said. "I'm very excited."
Ruggeri had multiple reasons to celebrate. Combined with his performances in vault (fifth place) and floor exercise (tied for fifth), he was a three-time All-American in his first NCAA Championships. Even Illini assistant coach Justin Spring – a four-time NCAA champion and 12-time All-American – didn't notch as many All-America laurels as a freshman (two).
Ruggeri is awaiting word – it's expected later this week – on an invitation from USA Gymnastics to the U.S. Championships May 22-24 in Houston.
"It's great," Ruggeri said of the NCAA title, "but it's just a steppingstone. There's more work to be done in the future. It's an indication of what I can do in the future."