The No. 10 Michigan women’s gymnastics team had a day of firsts when it faced No. 19 Illinois last weekend. The team topped the 197.000 score mark for the first time in the season, earned seven scores of 9.900 or higher and senior captain Nicole Artz’s floor routine garnered her a perfect 10, earning her a nod as Big Ten Gymnast of the Week.
It didn’t look like it could get any better for the Wolverines this early in the season. But then it did.
Boasting a season-high score of 197.225, Michigan (2-1 Big Ten, 4-2 overall) seems to have found its groove, handing in-conference rival No. 12 Nebraska (2-1, 4-1) its first loss of the season, 197.225-194.800. The meet held unique importance to the Wolverines, as it was the team’s fourth annual Autism Awareness Meet, held at Crisler Center on Saturday.
The annual event began in 2014 when assistant coach Dave Kuzara came back to Michigan and proposed the idea after running the event as head coach at Western Michigan. The Wolverines’ coaching staff was unanimously on board, passionate about raising awareness for the cause.
“It’s just an amazing event,” said Michigan coach Bev Plocki. “It has been such an educational experience for all of our student athletes in terms of understanding and accepting people who are a little different, but having the realization that they are brilliant as well.”
Executing high-energy, intricate routines across the board, the Wolverines made the day even more special by repeating last week’s magic. They found themselves with eight scores of 9.900 or higher, spread throughout all four events. Michigan expected tough competition from the Cornhuskers, as they placed second behind the Wolverines in the Big Ten Championship last season. But on Saturday, Michigan swept all four events, led in score after every rotation and claimed the all-around title in the meet.
Artz continued her momentum, taking the all-around title for the second consecutive week with a top score of 39.500 Saturday. Artz and junior Paige Zaziski tied for first place on bars, scoring a season-high 9.925 in the second rotation. Finishing off the meet and securing for Michigan a season-high score, Artz earned a 9.900 for her dynamic floor routine, which awarded her the first-place title for floor in a three-way tie with sophomores Olivia Karas and Emma McLean.
There was never a shortage of energy from the fans and gymnasts during the meet, but the room was the most electric after Karas’ vault performance. During the first rotation, Karas executed a one-and-a-half Yurchenko and stuck the landing, earning her both a career-high score of 9.975 and the first-place vault title in the meet.
“I couldn’t breathe when the team came over to hug me,” Karas said. “Those are the best hugs — you remember them forever.”
Vault has been a consistent high-point for Karas, who was one of the top-ranked vaulters in the nation last year. According to Plocki, vault was the Wolverines’ strongest event of the day, as they demonstrated improvement in their landings. Michigan had struggled with inconsistency, specifically on vault dismounts.
“We have been working really hard on our landings,” Plocki said. “We have bigger, more dynamic vaults, but we haven’t done a great job of sticking landings.”
For McLean, there was much to celebrate. Not only was Saturday was her birthday, but she earned a career-high 9.900 on vault, matching her career-high of 9.900 on floor to give her the joint first-place title. It is the second week in a row that McLean’s floor routine has earned her a near perfect score.
“This year I went in with the mindset that I’m going to have a party when I do my floor routine,” McLean said. “It makes it more fun.”
The Wolverines covered all their bases this week, as senior captain Talia Chiarelli won beam with a 9.925, setting herself apart from her competitors as the only gymnast to earn over a 9.850 in the event.
Between raising awareness for an important cause, sweeping Nebraska and earning a season-high score, Michigan looks well on its way to returning to championship form.