Matthew Whitaker landed firmly on his feet and didn’t move an inch. The senior let out a yell and pumped his fist before moving to celebrate his stuck dismount from the still rings with his teammates on the No. 3 Michigan men’s gymnastics team.
Two rotations later, Whitaker once again completed a routine — this time on the parallel bars — with his feet glued to the floor. This time, when his teammates swarmed him to celebrate his performance, there was an extra level of emotion.
It was the final regular-season routine of Whitaker’s career with the Wolverines.
His career-high score of 14.150 on the parallel bars won the event and was one of his two podium finishes in Michigan’s Senior Day meet against No. 18 UIC. The Wolverines won, 406.200-367.750.
“(Whitaker) really came through today,” said Michigan coach Kurt Golder. “I’m very, very happy for him. He has trouble sometimes. He lets the nerves get to him — or the nerves get to him. I don’t think he does it voluntarily. But yeah, I’m very happy that he handled the situation today.”
Coming into Saturday’s meet against the Flames, Golder intended to give all eight of the Wolverines’ graduating seniors a chance to compete one last time. Some of them, including Whitaker, do so relatively sparingly, but against the Flames, Golder knew he had the ability to be flexible with his lineup.
UIC’s high score this season is 370.300 — more than 40 points below Michigan’s best mark of 413.900.
“They’re not the strongest team we meet,” Golder said. “We like to use that so that if we want to experiment with a new routine, we can. We’re not going against Oklahoma or Illinois or one of the powers. And then that way we can also get our seniors in, too. Your senior class isn’t always your strongest lineup, so it serves that purpose as well.”
In the Wolverines’ win, seven of the eight seniors competed and six of them earned spots on the podium. In total, Michigan earned the top three placings on all six events and UIC’s lone podium finish came in the all-around.
But despite the large margin of victory, the Wolverines found difficulty in at least one or two routines on every event.
Golder prefers his team to have major mistakes, such as a fall, at most two times in a single meet. Saturday, though, Michigan had five major mistakes.
Senior Emyre Cole missed the Wolverines’ three previous meets as a result of a violation of team rules, and his time away from competition was evident in his up-and-down performance. He fell dismounting from the still rings and again attempting a release move on high bar.
But Cole also turned in a score of 14.650 on vault and won the event, in addition to placing second on floor and in the all-around.
“Pretty good, but not perfect,” Golder said of Cole’s performance. “Maybe not in quite good enough shape yet. He got ready as best he could when you’re not competing, but competing and doing it in the gym are different things.”
Just as Cole was imperfect, so was Michigan. The Big Ten Championships loom next week, and the Wolverines will look to win the meet for the first time since 2014 when they won both the Big Ten and NCAA Championships. After making mistakes on more routines than usual against UIC, the pressure is on for Michigan to improve.
But Golder prefers it that way.
“I would rather that we don’t have the perfect meet, but kinda close, and I think that’s what we were,” Golder said. “I think it’s better that way than to have the perfect meet today and go into Big Tens thinking you’re all that. Better to have a little pressure on, a little more concern.”