Tate: Spring's time has arrived
You've seen freshman sensation C.J. Maestas and fifth-year senior Paul Ruggeri — the younger from Corrales, N.M., and the elder from Manlius, N.Y. — honored as leaders of the Illini's NCAA gymnastics championship.
But when Justin Spring talks of "a team triumph," this isn't coach-speak.
First, back on March 12, Spring made a hard decision to remove senior Tyler Mizoguchi from the team. In the view of outsiders, that appeared to jeopardize chances of winning a fourth straight Big Ten title and surely killed national championship hopes. Mizoguchi was the NCAA parallel bars champion in 2011 and was second in the all-around. At his best, he was spectacular.
Spring called last month's suspension "a team agreement" stemming from academic concerns and the fact "Mizoguchi did not abide by team rules." There had been obvious problems, Spring removing Mizoguchi's scholarship during his sophomore year, and more recently pointing to "negative energy in practice" that affected team atmosphere.
So Mizoguchi was absent when Spring embarked with 15 gymnasts last week to Norman, Okla., where the home crowd was fired up and confident in calling for a Sooner triumph. And here's the inside story: In a highly unusual development, all 15 Illini contributed. All 15 counted for points, and this was particularly important when, in consecutive moments of great despair, Maestas and Ruggeri fell from the high bar.
Here's how it works. In a system that may soon change, six schools make the finals, and each coach picks six athletes to compete in each of six events. Four scores count for each. For example, in floor exercise, if the four individual scores come in at 15 — a good number — the team score would be 60 in that event.
Here's what happened: In the third event, the high bar, Illinois was poised to take charge. Four scores were in, all under 15, when Maestas and Ruggeri took their turns.
"They went out knowing they had a buffer, and they went for it," Spring said.
Ruggeri attempts one of the world's hardest high bar routines, which allows him to score well over 15. He is exceptional at it. But Ruggeri and Maestas fell to the mat. Without their scores, a pair of 14.9s by senior C.J. Padera and sophomore Jordan Valdez helped the Illini settle for a 58.750 tally. Their backs were now firmly against the wall.
It was in the fifth event, the pommel horse, that the momentum fully reversed.
"This is an event that lends itself to mistakes," Spring said. "But our guys rose to the occasion. They hit their routines and, just as the crowd was loudest, they sucked the energy out of it. There was no single shining star but one giant shining star. They killed it and finished off the rings as well."
Maestas was joined by three Californians — Chad Mason, Yoshi Mori and Cole Smith — in producing a superb 60.750 pommel score. And in the final event, the rings, three specialists who, in Spring's words, "had been sitting around all night," stepped up in their only event and, along with Maestas, provided the clinching points. "They did what they dreamed of," said Spring of seniors Anthony Sacramento and Kyle Moe (Champaign Central) and freshman Mike Wilner.
In other sports on other days, you'll hear about a "team triumph." But it'll never be more so than this.
Future looks bright
"In the last 10 years, we've had so much talent and so many opportunities," Spring said, "but we weren't able to find that thing to put it over the top. When were we going to get that title? Finally, this team fulfilled that destiny. This is where we are and where we are headed. It is my hope that we will continue to win championships and produce Olympians."
Of the UI's 15 counters, 11 return along with four or five incoming recruits. Spring has it on a high-level roll. As almost happened in volleyball, the Illini are No. 1. And from all indications, they'll be among the favorites next year and beyond.
Welcomed back to campus Sunday night by a cheering crowd that included Chancellor Phyllis Wise, athletic director Mike Thomas and football coach Tim Beckman, Spring cited "the kind of support that I have experienced from the time I was here and competing for the Olympics."
Said Spring: "I told our squad members that this is not my team, this is your team, and you need to take ownership in it. I lived vicariously through them. This was a team triumph because, while the stars anchored our victory, others stepped up when the stars fell.
Forced to pick one of the unsung heroes, Spring settled on two: Mori and Padera. Mori counted in four events Friday, Padera two. Said Spring: "Padera was the most consistent all year. He counted in every meet. This was all about the team."
Loren Tate writes for The News-Gazette. He can be reached at email@example.com.