Underclassmen stepped up in the Michigan men's gymnastics team's win over NIU. Jenna Hickey/Daily. Buy this photo.

Thanks to strong performances from its underclassmen in a 385.950-252.100 rout of Northern Illinois (0-1 overall) on Saturday, the No. 1 Michigan men’s gymnastics team (1-0) feels as confident as ever in its quest for a national championship.

The Wolverines opened their season by resting heavy hitters junior Paul Juda and graduate student Cameron Bock. In their absence, freshman Rithik Puri, freshman David Wolma and junior transfer Crew Bold led the way for the decisive Michigan win.

Before heading out for winter break, the Wolverines held their annual intrasquad meet, which gave a preview of how the team, and especially the freshmen and transfers, would perform in the upcoming season. 

At that time, junior Adam Wooten noted how important the newcomers would be for the reigning Big Ten champions in order to fulfill their goal of a national championship, and added that anything less would be a failure.

The intrasquad meet was reminiscent of Michigan’s previous season, one that was dominated by the upperclassmen who were accompanied by underclassmen still needing to prove themselves after struggling in their routines.

“We performed well above expectations,” sophomore Steven Lukasik said after the meet against NIU. “Some of the freshmen and sophomores didn’t do so well at our intrasquad Maize and Blue, but they definitely proved themselves today and that they can do everything we need them to have a successful season and future seasons.”

And there were stellar performances from the freshmen and sophomores, with freshman Lais Najjar notching the highest score on pommel horse with 12.400, Wolma scoring the highest on vault with 14.450, sophomore Colin Stenger with the highest score on rings with 13.850 and Puri scoring the second-highest all-around after Willett.

Saturday showed glimpses of Michigan’s present and future, and with Michigan coach Yuan Xiao’s confidence in his team as “championship caliber,” the Wolverines will need the same level of production from its underclassmen against the powerhouse Big Ten teams on its schedule.

“Every Big Ten team is an awesome team,” Xiao said. “Our team has a lot of depth, and we want to see who from the group will adapt. That’s our main reason for competing today.”

It’s a long road ahead for Michigan, ranging from the roadblocks within its conference to the perennial contenders in Stanford and Oklahoma that have traded national championships for the last six years. For the Wolverines to compete for a championship, the latest additions to the roster will have to step up as they did against NIU.