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Sugiyama crowned Big Ten vault champion, Michigan finishes fourth

By Glenn Miller Jr., Daily Sports Writer
Published March 25, 2012

There are 19 Big Ten Championship banners that hang inside the Shepherd Training Center — home of the Michigan women’s gymnastics team. If all went according to plan, the Wolverines would have raised up their 20th on Saturday night.

But Michigan’s season hasn’t gone according to plan. It’s been riddled with unexpected injuries and flashes of inexperience.

The Wolverines will now have to wait another year to raise another banner.

Though, if there is a silver lining to Michigan’s fourth-place finish at the 2012 Big Ten Championships, it may be the difference a whole year can make. Just ask freshman Sachi Sugiyama, who took home Saturday’s Big Ten vault title in her rookie campaign.

No. 21 Michigan claimed the top spot in the morning session of Saturday’s event but was topped by three others during the second session inside Iowa’s Carver-Hawkeye Arena. The Wolverines’ 195.875 was fourth-best out of the eight teams competing, as Nebraska claimed its first Big Ten title with a 197.100 finish.

“It was so exhilarating,” Sugiyama said. “There’s so much energy going around. Everyone wanted it so badly. It just came down to who had the cleanest routines and who could hit today. We did the best we could today, and I’m proud of my team for it.”

Michigan (8-5 Big Ten, 13-8 overall) placed two competitors on the podium at the conclusion of the day’s events, while posting its fourth-highest overall score for the season. In addition to her vault crown, Sugiyama earned second on uneven bars after being bested by the Cornhuskers’ Lora Evenstad in the second session. Sophomore Joanna Sampson tied for runner-up on vault, contributing to the team’s second-highest score this season for the event. Both Sugiyama and Sampson were selected to the All-Championships Team, while junior Katie Zurales represented the team for the Big Ten Sportsmanship Award.

The Wolverines’ strong start on beam was executed without a single fall, as they tallied a 48.725. Freshmen Annette Miele led Michigan with a 9.800, her second time this season recording the team’s top score on beam. From the middle of the lineup, Zurales posted a 9.775, only to be followed by sophomore Shelby Gies’ 9.750. A pair of 9.700s from Sampson and sophomore Stephanie Colbert rounded out the rotation for the Wolverines. The team continued its streak of consecutive beam performances without counting a fall since its meet in February against Utah.

“The first event, you get your nerves out,” Zurales said. “It was challenging, but we started off solid. I am so proud of everyone. We all went out there and hit really solid routines. Again, I think we have a lot to be proud of, and I can't say that enough.”

In its second rotation, Michigan looked to continue its momentum on floor. Zurales’ team-leading 9.825 was accompanied by four other Wolverine scores of 9.700 or higher. A pair of 9.750s from Sugiyama and Miele was followed by Sampson and sophomore Reema Zakharia with 9.725 and 9.700, respectively. At the halfway point of the meet, Michigan (97.475) trailed both Illinois (97.850) and Michigan State (97.500).

Needing a spark of energy, the Wolverines completed a series of spectacular vault routines. Sugiyama’s event-winning 9.950 paved the way for Michigan, followed by Sampson’s 9.900, which tied for second. Colbert’s impressive 9.825 out of the leadoff spot was preceded by Zurales' 9.875 and Miele’s 9.825. The Wolverines finished with a total of 49.375 for the event, their highest score in a month. The freshman duo of Sugiyama and Miele both set new career-highs, while Colbert tied her season-high on vault.

“The team really helped to set her up for that, because we were just sticking one vault after another,” said Michigan coach Bev Plocki. “When you’re doing that, you help to build the scores. It was a beautiful vault, and she absolutely nailed the landing. It’s pretty impressive to come out your freshmen year winning first and second place on two of four events.”

As Michigan headed into the final event on bars, it trailed Illinois by one-tenth of a point. Another team-leading score by Sugiyama (9.900), contributed to the Wolverines’ late push to win. Miele followed with a 9.825, as did Zurales and Gies with a pair of 9.800s. In her first-ever bars routine, Colbert’s 9.700 sealed Michigan’s win over the Fighting Illini and a first-place finish in the morning session.