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Friday, October 31, 2014

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Michigan, Mikulak repeat as national champions

By Alex Taylor, Daily Sports Writer
Published April 11, 2014

The word ‘perfect’ is almost never mentioned in gymnastics, a sport that adheres countless deductions to the smallest of errors, but the Michigan men’s gymnastics team’s performance Friday night came pretty darn close.

After finishing the regular season undefeated and then winning the Big Ten championship, the second-ranked Wolverines wrapped up their perfect season by winning the National Championship with a score of 445.050. Competing at home in the Crisler Center, Michigan edged out second place Oklahoma and third place Stanford to reach the pinnacle of collegiate gymnastics for a second straight year.

The Wolverines earned the first repeat national championship in school history since the Trampoline program did so in 1969-1970. Friday also marked the third championship in five years for Michigan, and its sixth all time.

“It just doesn’t get any better than winning it at home,” said Michigan coach Kurt Golder. “And this is my fourth one, and they are all great, but winning it in front of a Michigan crowd in Crisler Center. And then it being a repeat, it just makes it all the sweeter. I couldn’t ask for anything more.”

In addition to winning back-to-back team championships, senior Sam Mikulak also took home back-to-back all-around titles, with a total score of 91.10. Mikulak had the highest score in three out of the six events on the night, highlighted by his performances on parallel bars and floor exercise.

His individual title, the sixth individual championship of his career, leaves him only two short of holding the most individual championships in NCAA history ahead of Saturday’s competition.

Though starting the competition on one of the hardest events — pommel horse — the Wolverines took the early lead and never looked back. Mikulak paced Michigan with a score of 15.600 in the event – good enough to tie for first. Michigan also got a pair of 14.950s from junior Nick Hunter and senior Matt Freeman on its way to a total score of 75.100.

“Pommel horse is the most difficult event to perform on,” Golder said. “But I have a lot of confidence in this team. That’s actually our most consistent event, and that’s very rare. So if you go out and start on pommel horse and hit like we did, it takes the pressure off.”

Added Mikulak: “We have a very confident pommel horse team, and we wanted to get that one out of the way, and we did it with a bang. And that’s just the way you want to start the National Championship.”

On its third rotation of the night, vault, Michigan made uncharacteristic errors that seemingly opened the door for competitors to get back into contention. But the Wolverines slammed that door shut on the next rotation, parallel bars.

Mikulak once again led Michigan with a score of 16.050 – only .050 less than the NCAA record, set by Mikulak himself two weeks ago at the Big Ten Championships. Graduate student Syque Caesar and Hunter, with scores of 15.200 and 15.050, respectively, also contributed to the overall score of 75.95 – the highest of any team competing.

“You know you’re going to have adversity, and we talked about this quite a bit, and you just have to handle everything,” Golder said. “We had that fall on vault and the rest of the guys stepped up and we moved to the next event (parallel bars), and we hit a grand slam and a home-run.”

The Wolverines sealed the championship with perhaps their best performance of the night in the sixth and final rotation on floor exercise. Junior Hub Humphrey, participating in his first event of the night, set the tone for Michigan with a score of 15.15. Junior Stacey Ervin, competing despite a torn bicep, topped Humphrey’s routine with a score of 15.30. But Ervin, too, was upstaged, as Mikulak’s score of 16.05 was the highest on the night on floor exercise by .50 points.

“We are very consistent on floor and once we got three hits out of the way, our two big guys, Stacey and Sam, finishing off the meet, we knew it,” Caesar said. “Once Stacey hit, we knew we had it. It just made it all that much better when Sam stuck the dismount, and we all went ballistic.”