FORT WORTH, Texas — The No. 3 Michigan women’s gymnastics team entered the NCAA National Semifinal as the Raleigh Regional Champion and a favorite to advance to the final.
There were high expectations for the Wolverines, who have rightfully earned high praise all season. They won the Big Ten Championship and the Regional Championship, building momentum and setting themselves up for success Thursday night.
But those past successes could not guarantee a return trip to the National Final. A strong start faded into the Wolverines’ (26-5 overall) lowest score of the season at 196.2875 and a last-place finish. No. 2 Florida (29-0-1) won the meet, 197.9750-197.8375-197.200, with No. 7 Auburn (22-8-1) also advancing to the final with a second-place finish. Meanwhile, No. 11 Missouri’s (14-7) season also came to a close with a third place finish.
“We picked a bad day to have a bad day,” Michigan coach Bev Plocki said.
Despite the end result, Michigan started off strong with a solid performance on its top-ranked floor exercise. Senior Abby Brenner kicked off the rotation with an electrifying 9.8625-point performance, and it seemed like Michigan was off to another historic night out of the gate.
Senior Abby Heiskell followed Brenner’s routine with a 9.900, complete with stuck landings and beautiful flips throughout her 90 seconds. Heiskell ended by pointing at the sky, and then leaped into her traditional double fist-pumps while running back to her teammates.
That success continued as senior Natalie Wojcik stuck the landing on her first tumbling pass, a key ingredient to some of her top scores on the event this season. Wojcik’s stellar routine earned her a 9.9125, which was followed by junior Sierra Brooks’ 9.900 and junior Gabby Wilson’s 9.9125.
The 49.425 team score on floor exercise — the third best floor score at NCAA Nationals in team history — gave the Wolverines momentum heading into the second rotation, but Michigan led the pack by only a slim 0.0125, with Auburn, Florida and Missouri trailing behind.
The Wolverines followed that up with a solid performance in its first-ranked vault, including three 9.8875s from sophomore Reyna Guggino, Wojcik and Wilson. Brooks was the highest scorer for the Wolverines in the event with a 9.900, and Michigan was cheering louder than they had all season with every landing.
But even with those high scores, the overall 49.4250 on the event was not good enough to keep Michigan in first place headed into the third rotation.
Auburn earned two scores of 9.950 or better on the floor exercise from Suni Lee and Derrian Gobourne to overtake Michigan for first place. Halfway through the competition, all four teams were within 0.500 of each other, indicating that it would be a tight finish no matter what.
In order to stay competitive headed into the final rotation on the balance beam — its worst event — Michigan had to hit three 9.9s or better on the uneven bars.
Heiskell nailed her leadoff routine with excellent pivots and handstands throughout. Her stuck landing earned her a 9.9125, giving the Wolverines a solid start on the event. It seemed like Michigan could get the job done.
But then, Brenner fell in the second slot of the rotation, earning a mere 9.000. That put pressure on the next competitors to earn scores that would keep Michigan in a competitive position to advance to the National Final.
“I had hoped that (our) consistency would be a benefit to us today,” Plocki said. “But sometimes all it takes is one little thing to derail you from that sort of zone, and sometimes it’s just not your day.”
That looked like a momentary lapse at first, and sophomore Naomi Morrison’s 9.8875 seemed to get the Wolverines back in that zone. The volume increased from the players’ corral and the Michigan faithful as Brooks’ 9.950 and Wojcik’s 9.925 brought the total of 9.9-plus scores for the Wolverines to three.
But still, it turned out to be not enough.
In the anchor position, freshman Jacey Vore over-rotated on her last handstand, was forced to dismount too close to the tall bar and fell to the mat. The resulting 8.975 forced Michigan to count Brenner’s 9.000, dropping Michigan 0.6375 behind second-place Florida.
“(The counted fall on bars) gave up probably 0.9000,” Plocki said. “And after that, we knew we had a lot of ground to make up, and it was improbable that we were going to be able to do it.”
Despite the best efforts of the Wolverines, the margin was too much headed into the final rotation. On beam, the nerves settled in, and Michigan suffered two more falls, though those were less consequential.
Facing those steep odds — and in the final routines of their collegiate careers — Heiskell and Wojcik shined. Heiskell’s 9.900 was her second highest of the season, and Wojcik’s beautiful 9.8625 elicited resounding cheers and applause from even the most vocal opponent fans.
“I’m incredibly proud of the culture that we have in our program,” Plocki said. “After 33 years, last year and this year they have been some of the most amazing athletes I’ve ever coached, not just athletically but personally.”
Following up a historic National Championship last season, Michigan held the No. 1 ranking for eight weeks. They were consistent all year long and only had one meet — bar on Thursday night — scoring below 197.000.
Even when the outcome looked grim, the Wolverines stood tall. But in the end, their efforts weren’t enough to repeat last season’s historic success.