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Another late rally helps Michigan stay perfect in January

Austen Hufford/Daily
Freshman Sachi Sugiyama survived a fall on beam to help ‘M’ to victory. Buy this photo

By Glenn Miller Jr. , For the Daily
Published January 29, 2012

The Michigan women’s gymnastics team left Crisler Center on Friday night with a win against Illinois, but that wasn’t enough to allay the bitterness the team felt about their frustrating performance.

“We definitely just need to regroup as a team, and decide, well, we’re small, but we’re strong,” said freshman Sachi Sugiyama. “We just need to get stronger — especially mentally.”

For the second week in a row, Michigan’s fate came down to the final rotation, and yet again, they didn’t disappoint. After struggling on beam, the 19th-ranked Wolverines rallied on floor to narrowly defeat the 14th-ranked Fighting Illini, 194.225-193.700.

There were many questions coming into Friday’s meet concerning Michigan’s response to the loss of junior Natalie Beilstein to a season-ending ankle injury. Many of those questions, though, will have to wait until the Wolverines can develop a fail-safe performance and post a decisive total score.

Michigan (3-0) got out to a strong start on Friday. Impressive performances by Sugiyama and junior captain Katie Zurales led the Wolverines to top finishes on vault, followed by sophomore Joanna Sampson, who tied for third.

Michigan then continued its success on uneven bars, recording its best performance of the year (49.125). With five scores of 9.800 or higher, the Wolverines added to their lead thanks to the routines of sophomore Shelby Gies and freshman Annette Miele.

“I thought Annette Miele did a fabulous job on uneven bars stepping in for (Beilstein),” said Michigan coach Bev Plocki. “Annette is going to be our go-to person on floor as soon as we can get her ready.”

Miele, who made her collegiate debut on balance beam against Ohio State, was one of the athletes who Plocki has spotlighted in Beilstein’s absence. In her first performance on uneven bars this season, the freshman showed few signs of inexperience.

“She was a little nervous, so we had to calm her down, but she did great,” Sugiyama said. “I’m really excited for her to start doing more events and start competing instead of exhibitioning.”

It was only a matter of time, though, before the Wolverines would face their nemesis — the balance beam. Despite strong performances from Sampson, Gies and junior Brittnee Martinez, Michigan posted its worst overall score this season for the event (47.675). After being forced to count two disappointing falls, the Wolverines struggled in their third rotation, which allowed Illinois to take the lead.

“I told the kids after beam coming into floor, ‘I hate to always be going into the last event needing to rally to win a competition, but you guys have done it well up to this point, so let's keep it going,’ ” Plocki said.

Michigan’s clutch performance on the balance beam last week helped secure their narrow victory in the fourth rotation over Minnesota. This week, even with the advantage of being the home team, the Wolverines reverted to what Plocki called a “frustrating” performance.

Fortunately for Michigan, the balance beam wasn’t too kind toward Illinois, either. The Fighting Illini recorded their own share of falls on the balance beam, which allowed the Wolverines a chance to get back into the meet.

“I knew since I fell on beam, I would need to come back strong,” Sugiyama said. “So I got a little mad and took that adrenaline to use it to the best of my ability. I knew I just had to be strong (on floor).”

Once again, the Wolverines displayed their late-meet heroics, led by sophomore Reema Zakharia, who tied for the event title on floor (9.900). Rounding out the quartet of Michigan gymnasts — who all recorded scores of 9.800 or higher — were Sugiyama, Zurales, and Sampson. Michigan’s strong performance on floor proved too much for Illinois and helped lead the Wolverines to a third win despite their stumbles on beam.

“I’m proud of them, but obviously the opponents have opened the door and given us the opportunity to be able to make that come back,” Plocki said. “We can’t count on that to happen down the road, so we’ve got to fix our mistakes and we’ve got to get mentally tougher if we want to have success this season — which we absolutely can still have.”