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Captains lead Michigan, but team falls just short of qualifying for NCAA Super Six

By Cindy Yu, Daily Sports Writer
Published April 21, 2013

Despite falling one spot short of advancing to the NCAA Super Six, the most prestigious meet in collegiate gymnastics, the captains — senior Katie Zurales and junior Joanna Sampson — led the No. 7 Michigan women’s gymnastics team to the second-highest NCAA Championships team score in program history. Maintaining composure throughout the NCAA semifinals at Pauley Pavilion in Los Angeles, the Wolverines scored a 196.850 in the evening session on Friday night, but ended their season as a team.

Based on the top-four finishes in individual events at the NCAA semifinals, Zurales and Sampson were named first-team All-Americans and qualified for Sunday’s NCAA event finals on balance beam and floor exercise, respectively. Additionally, Sampson qualified for the vault finals, and both gymnasts were named first-team All-Americans in the all-around after tying for first with scores of 39.525 in the second session.

“Joanna is a very powerful athlete, while Katie is an artistic athlete,” said Michigan coach Bev Plocki. “I don’t think either one of them could have done a better job.”

Only four teams have ever taken home a national championship, and three of them —Alabama, UCLA and Utah — were in the same subdivision as Michigan. Though the Wolverines (17-2 Big Ten, 31-5 overall) competed in a tough session, the team made quite an entrance on bars, scoring a 49.400 — the school’s highest team total on that event at the NCAA Championships since 1998 — to lead after the first rotation.

Stuck landings punctuated the team’s performance, as Zurales and senior Brittnee Martinez led the team on that rotation. The two seniors scored matching 9.900s to earn them second-team All-American honors, but not enough to qualify them to bars finals.

Zurales especially impressed, as her competition status on bars was in question after she tweaked her elbow at the Big Ten Championships and suspended both training and competing at NCAA Regionals.

Whereas senior Natalie Beilstein will return the next season as a redshirt senior and Zurales still had one more day of competition left, Martinez, the only other senior on the team, finished her career that night.

“(Brittnee’s) the one right now that’s hurting the most,” Plocki said. “She certainly had a phenomenal year, probably her best season at Michigan. I don’t want her to remember this last competition. I want her to remember the fabulous season she had and how valuable she has been to this team all year long.”

On the second rotation, Michigan struggled on beam, totaling a 48.775 on the event, its worst team score of the season. While no one in the lineup fell, the Wolverines were unusually shaky across the board, especially after nailing routine after routine in the two weeks of practice leading up to NCAA Championships. Balance checks and steps on landings cost them valuable tenths that could have been the difference between competing in the Super Six on Saturday and missing out. Zurales kept the fire alive by scoring a 9.875 for her near-flawless routine that landed her a spot in the beam finals.

The Wolverines had a bye after beam, slowing their momentum and affecting them negatively, as their mentality switched from a time to relax to panic mode.

“It’s very hard to come off an event you’re a little disappointed with and go to a bye,” Plocki said. “We had an empty rotation to sit around and think about (beam). During the year, when you don’t have byes, you can move onto something else, and your mind changes. We came out, picked ourselves up and performed, but it wasn’t with the same exuberance that we started the meet out on bars.”

Added Sampson: “I think we just went in with a different mindset than we normally do. … We had talked about controlling our energy and using it in a good way, but I think we controlled it a little bit too much, which made us tentative versus going out there and being aggressive like we are in practice.”

At the halfway point, Michigan sat in fifth — ahead of Arkansas but trailing Alabama, Oklahoma, UCLA and Utah by over three-tenths.

The Wolverines narrowed the gap on floor after scoring a 49.400 for their efforts. Their floor total tied for a school best at the NCAA Championships. Sampson led her team on the rotation, scoring a 9.925 for her explosive routine highlighted by arguably her best tumbling of the season. Not only did she stick all of her passes with ease, but her body also opened out on her double layout and double pike, a rare technique to master on such difficult skills.

“I tried to have as much fun as I could, especially because when we’re having fun … we usually do our best routines,” Sampson said.

Zurales showcased powerful tumbling, as well, to receive second-team All-American honors for her routine that scored a 9.900. Zurales was in the race for the coveted all-around title, as she needed a 9.925 to tie Florida gymnast Bridget Sloan.

Finishing the meet up on vault, Zurales scored a 9.850 for her stuck, yet slightly piked down, Yurchenko full. Freshman Austin Sheppard had only a tiny step on her landing to score a 9.875 for her vault, while Sampson carried over her explosiveness on the floor to this rotation. She scored a session-high 9.950 for her Yurchenko full that featured a huge block, great height and a perfect landing.

Michigan’s comeback from beam wasn’t enough to surpass Alabama, UCLA and Oklahoma after their second bye. Even so, the Wolverines have much to be proud of, as they finished their season with the most wins in a single season since 2005.

“We fought until the very end,” Zurales said. “My heart just breaks for this team because we’re so special. I don’t think anyone understands just how much work we put into this coming from where we were last year to this year.”

Reflecting and ready to prove that they belong in that group of six next year, Plocki said that many players told her, “Next year starts Monday.”

Although the team competition was over for the Wolverines, the block ‘M’ was still represented at Sunday’s event finals by the captains.

Sampson delivered her usual powerful floor routine, displaying her clean dance and monstrous tumbling. She scored a 9.9375, enough to take home the NCAA floor title.

Having been ranked No. 1 for the majority of the season on floor, Sampson emphasized the added pressure of hitting that one routine in NCAA semifinals and NCAA event finals, as the qualifiers and winners are based solely on those routines, not the past meet history.

Additionally, Sampson completed a clean Yurchenko full with a small step back in the vault finals, scoring a 9.8583 to tie for 14th place on the event.

Zurales, competing the last routine of her career in the beam finals, executed a wobble-free performance to finish runner-up by 0.0025 to Sloan. She scored a 9.8875 for her routine that featured sticks on an aerial to backhandspring flight series, connected beat to sheep jump and roundoff double twist dismount.

Speechless and in tears, Zurales said: “From being able to represent my team to just going out on a strong note, I don’t even have the words to describe what it meant to me and how honored I was to be out there.”