On a quiet, unassuming Saturday afternoon in Ann Arbor, the Cliff Keen Arena was anything but.
The building buzzed from start to finish as the No. 5 Michigan men’s gymnastics team (8-0 overall, 1-0 Big Ten) defeated No. 3 Nebraska (3-3, 0-1) with a final score of 409.100 – 400.50.
Led by junior Paul Juda and graduate student Nicholas Guy, the Wolverines won five events with three individual champions, sending Michigan home with an eighth-straight victory. The score marks a season high for the Wolverines in a matchup characterized by a team that trusts its own system.
“I believe our team is ready for the moment.” Michigan interim coach Yuan Xiao said.
The Wolverines entered into the matchup as underdogs, yet were prepared to face a strong Nebraska team that has tumbled to a third-straight loss.
The Cornhuskers looked rocky from the outset of the floor rotation. Their anchor, Sam Phillips, mislanded twice and stepped out of bounds on his signature aggressive routine. He and the Nebraska team struggled to find a rhythm, and left the door open for an energized Michigan squad.
The Wolverines grabbed an impressive first rotation win trademarked by anchor Guy’s tightrope landing on a double flip to end his floor routine. As a fifth year senior, Guy’s presence as anchor has not only physical implications, but mental ones too.
“[Guy] just hitting a routine is extremely important for the team,” Xiao said. “The seniors set a real model for the freshman and sophomores. He does silent work, but he’s a leader. We love to have him on the team.”
As the second rotation forged ahead, Michigan built upon its early lead. It secured another 1.350 margin over the Cornhuskers on pommel horse thanks, in part, to junior David Willett’s exceptional 13.150 on bars, punctuating the routine with a single-handed dismount into a double flip with a half turn. Driving his feet into the ground like stakes, the arena filled with applause as one Wolverine gymnast shouted: “He was so good!”
With an ample 2.800 lead going into the third rotation, Michigan posted its best score of the day on rings, achieving a 70.000 flat — the second best rotational score of the day. Juda anchored the event for the Wolverines, and captured the mood of the meet, landing a near perfect landing to soaring screams from the crowd, and raising his hands as if to say: who else?
“I love hearing the crowd roar, right? I love hearing my name,” Juda said. “I love all of that. But more than anything, it’s the guys in front of me that are setting that tone, and without them, none of it can happen.”
Michigan needed that team mentality, though, as Nebraska took the fourth rotation on vault, scoring an excellent 71.100 — the highest rotation of the day — cutting the Wolverine lead to 5.400 for a running score of 273.550-268.150. Conversely, the Wolverines struggled heavily on the rotation, with two major falls on their first two vaults.
However, Michigan found its stride once more on the parallel bars, and the rest of the meet went its way. Despite a strong 14.250 start by Nebraska’s Dylan LeClaire, Michigan proved to be too much, scoring above 13.800 on three of their five routines.
Going into their final rotation with only the high bar left, the Cornhuskers trailed 342.300 to 335.950. This section would be the Wolverine’s strongest as they gained another 2.400 points on Nebraska, and pushed the arena to a fever pitch. On back-to- back-to-back occasions, the final three Michigan high bar competitors received a roar of commotion from the crowd before even sticking their landings, culminating in an average individual score of 13.900.
With a chance to respond, the Cornhuskers fell short, punctuated by two heart-stopping slips by Phillips who nonetheless returned to the bar each time.
Instead, feeding off its own energy, Michigan prevailed.
“We feed off each other on horse, on rings,” Guy said. “We feed off the energy of each other.”