The road ends at Auburn for women’s gymnastics

McKenzie Berezin/Daily
Junior Katie Zurales and Michigan saw their season end this weekend. Buy this photo

By Glenn Miller Jr., Daily Sports Writer
Published April 8, 2012

There will be no Cinderella story for the Michigan women’s gymnastics team in 2012. The senior-less team, which has been riddled by injuries all season, had an opportunity to prove their doubters wrong during this weekend’s NCAA Regional Competion, but the glass slipper just didn’t fit right.

The 21st-ranked Wolverines promised all season that they would put together their best performance at the NCAA Tournament, and they didn’t disappoint.

After tallying a season-high 196.325, Michigan (16-10) watched its season come to an unexpected end on Saturday at the hands of Oregon State. The Beavers’ Leslie Mak, who leads the nation on beam, hit a 9.925 routine to edge out the Wolverines by .125 points in a battle for second place. Georgia, who defeated Michigan on March 9, finished first in the Auburn regionals and will join Oregon State in the NCAA Championships.

“I am proud of them for a lot of reasons,” said Michigan coach Bev Plocki. “We fought through a very difficult season. A lot of people came up to me after the meet and told me how incredibly impressed they were with how we performed and how we finished the season. Everyone knew what we were going through. That's nice and great to hear, but losing by .125 is a little hard to swallow.”

Despite falling short of their 20th NCAA Championships berth, the Wolverines will send junior Katie Zurales and sophomore Joanna Sampson as representatives at the NCAA Individual Event Finals. Zurales’ 39.375 as an all-arounder earns her the top score of the non-qualifying team’s, while Sampson tied for the regional title on vault with a 9.925.

“I’m not going to lie, I am really sad that my team isn’t going to be there with me, but I am really excited that Michigan will be represented at nationals,” Zurales said. “I can’t wait to go out there and represent them well. I want to bring home something for Michigan, because we deserve it with everything we’ve been through. I’m going to put it all out there and do it for the block ‘M.’ ”

The night looked promising for Michigan, as it opened the meet with a 49.300 on vault. Zurales and Sampson led the way competing from the heart of the lineup with a pair of 9.925s to tie Zurales’ career-high. Sophomore Reema Zakharia debuted a new routine that earned a 9.850, followed by freshmen Sachi Sugiyama’s 9.825. The event’s first two competitors, sophomore Stephanie Colbert and freshman Annette Miele, also contributed with scores of 9.750 and 9.775, respectively.

The momentum continued on uneven bars, where the Wolverines totaled a 49.050. An impressive 9.850 from sophomore Shelby Gies headlined the event for Michigan, along with Zurales’ 9.775 to start the rotation. A disappointing 9.550 from Miele amplified the pressure for the rest of Michigan’s lineup. After a pair of 9.800s from Sugiyama and Sampson, the Wolverines turned to junior Brittnee Martinez for support.

Martinez, who returned to action for the first time since injuring her ankle on March 2 at Penn State, delivered a 9.825 and preserved Michigan’s score. The Wolverines’ 98.350 score at the halfway point of the meet was just half a point behind Georgia, which held the lead throughout.

In its third rotation, a few wobbles on balance beam resulted in a 48.750 for Michigan. Zurales’ team-high 9.850 tied for third place, followed by a leadoff score of 9.800 from Gies. Contributions from Sampson’s 9.750 and Miele’s 9.700 placed the Wolverines in a good position, but a slipped dismount from Sugiyama earned a 9.650. Colbert rounded out the lineup with a 9.500, but it was not counted in Michigan’s final score for the event.

“Obviously, I wanted to contribute to the team,” Gies said. “After Annette had a mess-up on bars, I knew there was no room for error. I just went out there, felt confident and trusted myself. It worked out.”

Georgia finished off its evening during the Wolverines’ bye round, which put the battle for second between Michigan and Oregon State. The Beavers’ 49.300 on bars put them ahead of the Wolverines heading into the final rotation by a mere four-tenths of a point.

Another late rally seemed to be in the makings as Michigan prepared itself for the floor exercise. A career-high 9.875 from Sugiyama earned fourth place for the event, while Sampson and Zakharia added a pair of 9.850s. Another set of identical scores, this time from Zurales’ and Colbert’s 9.825, deepened the Wolverines’ push. Despite a total of 49.225 on the event, Michigan’s score just wasn’t enough to top Oregon State’s impressive performance on beam.

“I thought we started and finished the meet like we were the champs,” Plocki said. “On beam, we made some silly errors, and we're sitting at home by .125 because of it. It breaks my heart for this team because I felt that with the season we had, I was hoping it would be the Cinderella story ending.

“We almost had it. We could have had it. It was within our grasp and we didn't close the deal.”

For only the second time in the past 21 seasons, the Wolverines’ have missed out on the chance to qualify for the NCAA Championships. Additionally, Michigan has finished below third only one time in the program’s history, when it placed fourth in 1993. The Wolverines will add to the record books this season, though, as Sampson and Zurales’ performance gives Michigan 54 NCAA Regional event titles in its history.

While they will have to wait until next year to compete for a national championship, the Wolverines are loaded with potential. Michigan will return its entire squad, including junior Natalie Beilstein, who missed the majority of the season with an injured Achilles tendon. In addition to a slate of impressive recruits, Michigan’s lineup could be one of the best in the nation after Miele and Sugiyama train for an entire offseason.

“I’m extremely proud of every single person on this team,” Zurales said. “I think this year was a lot bigger than just the gymnastics. This year was all about us growing into mature leaders. It was all about us coming together as a team, and overcoming so many things.

“So many people pushed themselves to get into lineups and pushed themselves farther than they thought they could. Because of all that, I think it’s going to prepare us even more for next year and we’re going to be unstoppable.”