Three days before the NCAA Regional Championships, one would expect to hear all the sounds of a grueling practice in the women’s gymnastics team’s training center, whether it be sprints on the runway to the vault, the squeak of uneven bars or tumbling passes on the floor.
Instead, all that could be heard was laughing.
There’s no doubt that the laughing came after a grueling practice, but it was laughter all the same. For No. 7 Michigan, this kind of confident, relaxed attitude is the engine pushing it to do well in competitions. Less than two weeks ago, it garnered the Wolverines a Big Ten Championship, and Saturday, they’re hoping it’ll get them an NCAA Regional Championship.
Watching individual gymnasts on competition day, one wouldn’t notice this attitude. Whether it’s Big Ten Freshman of the Year Olivia Karas prepping for a Yurchenko 1 ½ that got her a second-place finish on vault at the Big Ten Championships, or junior Talia Chiarelli pausing before a dismount on beam, each athlete is completely focused.
But if you look just behind them on the sidelines, you can see the rest of Michigan’s team smiling and cheering like it’s any another meet.
“The coaches are always telling us to stop during practice because they’ll try to have meetings and we’re just being loud and funny,” said senior Lindsay Williams. “We have a lot of fun together, and that helps us when we’re competing because we’re relaxed. We do way better that way.”
Michigan plans on going into the regional tournament with this same attitude. But facing teams like No. 6 Auburn, No. 18 Stanford, No. 24 Eastern Michigan and No. 25 Penn State, the Wolverines know they’re going to have to focus on more than just their confidence to get them a finish on top.
“We have been tracking hit percentage for landings; that is a huge focal point for us,” said Michigan coach Bev Plocki. “The difference between a team that goes to the Super Six and the team who doesn’t are those stuck landings.”
Near the end of the regular season, the Wolverines battled with some of those landings. At the Big Five meet — a qualifier for the Big Ten Championships — they had struggles with multiple landings on beam and on bars.
But at the Big Ten meet, Michigan looked like a completely different team. There were stuck landings all across the board, most noticeably by junior Nicole Artz, who won two Big Ten individual titles on floor and beam.
However, with competition coming from No. 6 Auburn this time around, the Wolverines know that despite their strong performance at Big Ten, they can’t take that win for granted. Michigan had back-to-back regional titles in 2013 and 2014, but fell short last year.
And while the Wolverines are hoping their confident attitude and work on landings will give them a chance to claim another title, they have a safety net.
“I can’t emphasize the importance of the depth in our lineup enough,” Plocki said. “Having Karas doing the job as a freshman, along with Brown and Artz — they’re incredible all-arounders.
“But you can’t be successful as a team with three great athletes. I’ve got Chiarelli, who is phenomenal on three events but goes unrecognized because she’s not an all-arounder, along with Sheppard and Christopherson. At meets like these, it can come down to one kid, one kid can be our savior. Sometimes, that’s the kid who doesn’t get recognition.”
Sophomore Nichelle Christopherson is a prime example of this depth.
Christopherson, who preformed just four routines on uneven bars her freshman year, stepped up to the plate this year. After senior Briley Casanova faced a sidelining back injury, Christopherson filled in. She not only filled in on the majority of the uneven bars rotations where she had previous experience competing, but also on floor.
Michigan’s roster has just 11 athletes, and with 24 events in a competition, this could be a struggle for the Wolverines. However, with athletes such as Christopherson to fill in any gray areas, these low numbers don’t prove any problems.
According to the rankings, Michigan should be one of the two teams advancing to the NCAA finals. If the Wolverines use their depth along with their home advantage, they could be restarting their Regional Championship streak.