BY COLT ROSENSWEIG
Daily Sports Writer
Published April 16, 2009
MINNEAPOLIS — When the final rotation of the NCAA men’s gymnastics team qualifiers began, the No. 4 Michigan men’s gymnastics squad stood in third place, just .65 points ahead of No. 8 Penn State.
Less than 30 minutes later, junior co-captain David Chan came racing back to the sidelines after hitting his handspring double front vault. He pumped his fists and practically skipped back into the arms of his teammates.
The Wolverines had not just left the Nittany Lions in the dust — they also surpassed No. 5 California to secure second place in the session with their best score of the season, 358.30.
Michigan has made it to NCAA team finals in the last two seasons by the skin of its teeth, sliding into the Super Six in sixth place both years. This year, Michigan qualified fourth overall for tomorrow night's Super Six team finals, giving the Wolverines fourth pick of which event on which to begin the night.
Few other than the Wolverines themselves would have predicted their finish after one rotation of competition. Michigan opened the session on parallel bars, its worst event at the Big Ten Championships, and didn’t do much better than two weekends ago.
Freshman Syque Caesar led the the Wolverines off with a hit set in his first appearance since partially tearing his meniscus. But his teammates couldn't build on it. Senior co-captain Phil Goldberg called the rotation “atrocious.”
After that, the Wolverines progressed slowly but steadily through the rankings, posting consistent hits through the next five events. Just like at Big Tens, sophomore Thomas Kelley earned Michigan’s top high-bar score in the anchor slot, putting the team on a roll.
On floor, the energetic, fiery atmosphere that manifested at Big Tens returned with a vengeance.
Sophomore Ben Baldus-Strauss, who is often ribbed by his teammates for looking dissatisfied after every performance, even gave a fist pump while he ran off the floor. Senior Scott Bregman, who missed his set at Big Tens, hit every pass in Minnesota’s Sports Pavilion as his teammates went crazy. Kelley and sophomore Chris Cameron anchored the rotation with Michigan’s two highest floor scores.
Most teams dread the pommel horse rotation — it is widely regarded as the most difficult event in gymnastics and the easiest on which to make a major mistake. Michigan, on the other hand, welcomed the challenge.
Goldberg got the Wolverines started with a 14.60, his highest score of the season. Redshirt freshman Adam Hamers smoothly executed his set for a 14.90, a season high, and Chan and Cameron finished it off with two huge 15.15 scores.
“I was joking with the coaches that I was going to break a 14.50 today, but I didn’t actually think I was going to do it,” Goldberg said.
Though No. 1 Stanford pulled away, eventually winning the session with a 361.10 score, the Wolverines were still within striking distance of Cal as they headed into the two highest-scoring events of a gymnastics meet, still rings and vault. And Michigan had all the momentum it needed.
When Cameron followed Goldberg’s near-perfect 15.15 rings set with Michigan’s top rings score (15.35), his father beamed from ear-to-ear in the stands. Cameron’s specialties are usually pommel horse and parallel bars — and last night, he competed through intense pain in his right shoulder.
“(Cameron’s) doing an excellent job,” Kelley said. “He’s just such a tough kid. He’s giving all he’s got for this team and he’s making sure that his routines are the best that they can be.”
In the final rotation, Michigan didn't look back at Penn State, even though the Nittany Lions trailed close behind. Instead the Wolverines had their eyes on the Golden Bears — and second place.
Baldus-Strauss and Chan were the final Wolverines to vault. For Baldus-Strauss, it was the one-year anniversary of breaking his ankle on the same event. To make matters worse, he had to wait through a lengthy judging conference regarding senior Ralph Rosso’s vault. Finally, he got the signal to go and tied his season-high with a 15.60.
“It was probably one of the best meets I’ve ever had, and it’s such a good feeling to peak right at the end,” said Baldus-Strauss, who had about 20 family members and friends at the meet. “And we’re seeded so well — we almost gave Stanford a run for their money, and we have room for improvement.”
Like Baldus-Strauss, anchor Chan has also been teased for not celebrating. He made up for it Thursday night. Never before had the junior shown such emotion in a meet as when he landed his vault and took a small hop forward.
“After Big Tens, I just told myself, ‘You’ve got to find the landing. It’s there, I just have to find it,’ ” Chan said. “I found it today.”