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Zurales, Sampson help Michigan improve before regionals

By Glenn Miller Jr., Daily Sports Writer
Published March 11, 2012

YPSILANTI — Even though the Michigan women’s gymnastics team left the EMU Convocation Center on Friday night with its sixth loss of the season, it still found success. In a sport where strong performances are more important that notching wins, the Wolverines continued to boost their national standing in preparation for the postseason.

Junior Katie Zurales took home three event titles, including the meet’s all-around crown. Meanwhile, sophomore Joanna Sampson claimed two titles of her own in Michigan’s 196.575 – 195.300 loss to No. 5 Georgia. Despite falling to yet another top-ranked team, the 20th-ranked Wolverines were good enough to slightly improve their regional qualifying score.

“I was proud of them,” said Michigan coach Bev Plocki. “I thought we competed a lot more relaxed tonight. That was a big thing for us. Because of the injuries, the seven that are still healthy and doing gymnastics were putting an enormous amount of pressure on themselves, and it was starting to not be fun.

“I just said, ‘Not any of you individually can go out and win a meet for us. It takes all of you … relax, enjoy what you're doing, because if you’re having fun it will be easier and you’ll be better.’ ”

Michigan started the meet on vault, looking to repeat its success from last week’s Penn State tri-meet. Sophomore Reema Zakharia, who replaced injured junior Brittnee Martinez, led off the event despite being out of the vault lineup for three weeks. Zakharia’s 9.650 was followed by sophomore Stephanie Colbert’s 9.775. The energizing performances of Zurales and Sampson in the middle of the lineup earned the Wolverines a pair of 9.925s. Michigan was unable to maintain the momentum though, as a pair of falls by the last two competitors forced the Wolverines to finish with a 48.500 for the event.

“This whole week we’ve been talking about just enjoying gymnastics more, and doing it because we love it,” Zurales said. “It was really exciting to nail vault and just do what I do in the gym.”

Michigan’s lack of depth enabled it to only place five gymnasts in its bars lineup. Zurales led off the event with a 9.825 followed by freshman Annette Miele’s 9.700. A pair of 9.850s from Sampson and sophomore Shelby Gies headlined the Wolverines’ score for the event, with Gies tying her season-high. Freshman Sachi Sugiyama’s 9.800 also contributed to Michigan’s final score of 48.850 on uneven bars. By the halfway point of the meet, the Wolverines trailed with a combined score of 97.350.

Zurales continued her impressive night on beam, tying a season-best score of 9.900. The freshmen duo of Sugiyama and Miele added with a 9.750 and 9.700, respectively. Sampson’s 9.650 and Gies’ 9.625 gave Michigan the opportunity to debut Colbert on the event. Competing out of the sixth spot in the lineup, Colbert’s 9.725 was topped only by an enormous hug from Plocki at the end of the routine.

“I competed just a lot more relaxed tonight,” said Colbert. “I was really excited about beam and took it as an opportunity to go out and hit the best routine I could.”

On floor, the Wolverines proved they’re comfortable competing with yet another five-man lineup. All five athletes scored 9.800s or higher, with Sampson’s 9.925 earning top honors for the event. Sampson’s season-high was followed by Zakharia’s 9.875 and Colbert’s 9.825. A pair of 9.800s from Sugiyama and Zurales finished the night for Michigan, who tied the Gym Dogs with a 49.225 on floor.

Top scores on vault and beam culminated in Zurales’ 49.450, a career-best for the all-around. Two other Wolverine all-arounders, Sampson and Sugiyama, followed closely behind with total scores of 39.350 and 38.575, respectively.

“We have places of greatness,” Plocki said. “Our problem is that we just can’t put all of our greatness together on the same night. We only have so many opportunities left. I’m just crossing our fingers that we can do it. We have to have our best meet of the season at NCAA regionals.”

Michigan hasn't had a first-place finish in five straight weeks, yet the team has continued to improve its regional qualifying score each meet. Friday night’s meet against Georgia allows the Wolverines to drop their score against West Virginia, improving the team’s score from 195.345 to 195.475. The marginal difference allows Michigan to surpass Minnesota and Illinois temporarily in the rankings. More importantly, the Wolverines will need a solid score next week against Michigan State to maintain their position heading into the Big Ten Championships.

“This team has a lot of grit and determination,” Plocki said. “They’re not quitters. We’ve not been as successful as we’ve had hoped to be so far this year. They have never given up. They still believe in themselves, and as long as they’re working hard and believing in themselves I have to believe at some point our day is going to come. I just hope and pray that day will be at the NCAA regionals, because that’s the meet that really matters.”