Thirteen months ago, Michigan ended its season with a loss to No. 1 Oklahoma. At the time, the fifth-ranked Wolverines expected to face the Sooners again in the NCAA Championships. A week later, those expectations disappeared, along with the rest of their season.
“Our whole theme or motto for this season is ‘unfinished business,’ ” Michigan coach Bev Plocki told The Daily on Jan. 16. “We had a really good team and season last year that was pulled out right from under us.”
Saturday, No. 4 Michigan ended its season with a win over No. 1 Oklahoma. And No. 6 Utah and No. 1 Florida. And the rest of the country. The team became national champions, the first in the program’s history and first for Michigan athletics since men’s gymnastics won in 2014.
This championship came in a year mired in conflict and obstacles. A sport that already requires impeccable discipline asked for more — off the mats and on them. That was part of the bargain made for this season, and this team followed it to a tee.
“It is incredibly difficult to take away an 18 to 21-year-old’s social life, and that’s essentially what has happened,” Plocki said Jan. 16. “They have handled it, they have dealt with it because this team and this season is a priority to us. Every single person is all in terms of doing what we need to do to reduce the possibility of this season ending prematurely again.”
A two-week pause, though, wasn’t a part of that bargain. Two meets into the season and it already appeared it could end before ever really beginning. The hard work and discipline, the win over No. 4 Minnesota so early in the season, would amount to nothing.
But the season returned, and with it an ascendant Wolverine squad. After its first loss at the Big Five Meet, Michigan scored 198.025 in a dominant performance that broke its record score. The next week, a new record took its place at 198.100.
The Wolverines’ vault performance reached a new level with every score over 9.9 in a victory against Maryland. Its season high reached a shocking 49.800, and it became the best team in the country on the vault.
“At the beginning of the year we were doing big vaults, but we couldn’t get the landings, and it was just a process,” Plocki said after winning the championship. “We absolutely peaked at the right time this year. We started right before the championship part of the season, we started being able to nail those 1.5s and that’s when people started taking notice of us too.”
The week after setting the new program high against the Terrapins, another low point appeared. For the first time since 2013, Michigan didn’t win the Big Ten Championship. A score of 197.425 fell three tenths short of No. 8 Minnesota’s mark, a poor floor score that doomed the Wolverines. It wasn’t the first time floor brought the score down — in their only other loss in the season, Michigan scored a 47.500 on floor.
But the disappointment of losing its iron-clad grip on the conference didn’t last long.
“When we did not win the Big Tens, I said to my team right then and there, ‘We’re gonna trade in a Big Ten Championship ring for a National Championship ring this year,’ ” Plocki said. “And I think that that’s when it really got serious.”
Michigan didn’t lose a meet through the rest of the NCAA Tournament, matching its program high once again in the Regional Final. Its vault led the way, naturally. And throughout the run, the floor held its own.
In the National Championship, Michigan — ranked twelfth nationally on floor — beat out the No. 1, No. 4 and No. 6 floor teams in the country with a score of 49.625.
Going into the final rotation, the Wolverines held a lead of 0.1375 over Oklahoma.
One last obstacle lay in between them and euphoria: the beam, an event they struggled on in the NCAA Second Round. The high-stakes event often sees low scores because every misstep and wobble may end up with a fall.
First, sophomore Gabby Wilson, who averages a 9.809 on beam, wobbled — her final score a 9.75. Next in the lineup, senior Lauren Farley, who grew up an hour from the arena, also wobbled. Her final score of 9.7625 was kept.
Just like that, Michigan lost their edge. From here on out, every routine would mean victory or loss.
And then, excellence.
“I think I knew those routines were semi off, but I also trusted myself and the rest of the lineup, so I was (thinking), ‘Get out there, do my thing,’ ” sophomore Sierra Brooks said. “I got on the beam and I just honestly approached it with as much confidence as I could ever have.”
A 9.9625 from Brooks and a 9.9875 from junior Natalie Wojcik put the title back in reach.
All eyes in the arena then fell on junior Abby Heiskell. A season riddled with conflict, detours and sacrifice was now one routine away from glory, one routine away from despair.
And as Oklahoma watched on, hoping for one last wobble, Heiskell executed. Determined and disciplined, as this team has been all season, the 2021 National Championship was secured.