Throughout the meet, Bev Plocki heard people talking about the first session of the NCAA Championship semifinals.
The Gauntlet was what they called it. There were other names the Michigan coach heard, but The Gauntlet resonated with her.
It couldn’t have been more fitting to describe what the No. 7 Michigan women’s gymnastics team faced in attempts to make the NCAA Championship final.
The Wolverines would have to finish top two — the finals advancement cutoff — in a field with No. 2 UCLA, No. 4 LSU and No. 6 Utah. Instead, they settled for a third place finish, scoring 197.2000.
And The Gauntlet was only part of the struggle they faced.
All season, Michigan battled adversity, and its last week of the season served the team a heaping pile of it — on the final day of practice, senior Emma McLean broke her hand. McLean played a pivotal role in both the vault and floor lineups, and without her, if the Wolverines wanted a shot at the championship, someone would have to step up.
“That was a little emotional on our last day of practice,” said senior Olivia Karas. “To watch my best friend go down and know that was the end of her career. That was pretty hard for me.”
Opening the meet on bars, that call was answered. Michigan’s lineup featured all four members of the freshman class — Abby Brenner, Abby Heiskell, Maddie Mariani and Natalie Wojcik — and all four members contributed scores at or above a 9.8000. When Karas stepped up to the bars, she was calm and confident. She swung through the routine with ease and stuck her double pike landing receiving the highest score of the rotation. Altogether the Wolverines earned a 49.300 — and a spot in second place.
“They’re amazing and incredible,” Plocki said. “I said to the freshmen, ‘You guys this is the beginning of something really special.’ They have contributed at such an incredible level. I’m so excited about how they’ve done.”
Headed to the balance beam, the Wolverines hoped to continue their streak of clean routines. Sophomore Lauren Farley led off and performed a routine that had a few wobbles and balance checks. Farley spent the week leading up to nationals in a boot with a foot injury. She earned a 9.7250. After four polished routines that all scored in the 9.8000 range, the only gymnast left was breakout star Wojcik.
From start to finish, Wojcik’s routine was nearly flawless. She flipped. She jumped. She stuck her landing. Her score flashed — a 9.9500 — and Wojcik’s name topped the beam leaderboard. When both semifinal sessions concluded, she was crowned the NCAA national champion on beam.
The solid beam rotation kept Michigan in second place, but competition was closing in on the Wolverines. They were less than a tenth of a point behind first-place UCLA, and third-place LSU was only .0125 points behind them.
Headed to floor without McLean, Heiskell opened the rotation. The freshman tumbled her way through the routine and started Michigan off strong with a 9.8375. Next up was junior Maddy Osman. During her second tumbling pass, Osman bounced out of bounds and received an automatic one-tenth deduction. Her score was a 9.6500.
The Wolverines turned to Brenner, who danced, tumbled and entertained the crowd on her way to a 9.8500. Wojcik and Karas anchored the lineup, and both performed routines filled with personality and clean tumbling. Despite ending the rotation with a 9.9000 from Wojcik, a 9.9250 from Karas and the dropping of Osman’s score, Michigan had slipped into third place.
“Our whole theme, everything we talked about in our team meeting last night, and even leading into competition was all about the fact that I wanted them to have fun,” Plocki said. “I wanted them to not pay attention to what anyone else was doing. I wanted them to compete for each other and stay in the moment and enjoy every moment.”
Just half a tenth behind second-place LSU, the Wolverines’ last chance to earn a qualifying spot came down to the apparatus that has been their Achilles heel all season — the vault.
Michigan called upon its freshman class to fill McLean’s shoes. Heiskell started the rotation off with her Yurchenko full and after a small hop on the landing, earned a 9.8000. The only stuck landing of the rotation came from sophomore Anne Maxim. Her Tsukahara received the highest score of the rotation for the Wolverines — a 9.8625.
Wojcik, Brenner and Karas couldn’t hold onto the stuck landings, and, like Heiskell, took small hops. When the scores settled, Michigan finished in third place with a score of 197.200 — only .163 behind the Tigers.
Four Wolverine gymnasts earned All-American honors — Karas, Wojcik, Osman and Funk. Karas led the group with four, earning first team honors on the uneven bars and floor and second team honors on beam and in the all-around.
“The people that we were competing against, I mean nobody anticipated us to advance,” Plocki said. “We were in second place after two events, and only down by a half a tenth after three and it just so happened that we ended on vault which is probably our event that we’re most challenged on.
“What this team was able to do and the pieces we picked up and the fight and determination and grit that they had, I’m incredibly proud of what we’ve accomplished.”