In observance of Women’s History Month, The Daily’s sports section is launching its fourth annual series aimed at telling the stories of female athletes, coaches and teams at the University from the perspective of the female sports writers on staff. Sports writer and sports audience engagement assistant editor Aria Gerson kicks off the series with this column.
Kari Miller watched as her shot bounced right on the edge of the court, then watched again as her Ohio State opponent couldn’t corral it.
Miller, a freshman on the Michigan women’s tennis team, pumped her fists as her teammates hounded her. She’d just won the tiebreaker at No. 1 singles, giving her team a 4-3 upset over the eighth-ranked Buckeyes.
It was far from the only winning moment this weekend you may have missed. In Minneapolis, three swimmers and three relay teams won Big Ten championships as junior Maggie MacNeil was named Swimmer of the Championships for the second consecutive year. At the same time in Geneva, Ohio, the women’s track and field team won individual conference titles in the 400-meter dash and the pole vault en route to a second-place team finish, its best since 2016. In Leesburg, Fla., softball kicked off its season with sweeps of Purdue and Iowa. Water polo notched three top-15 wins. Earlier this week, women’s soccer shut out Minnesota despite missing two of its top players — both playing for the Canadian national team.
The Wolverines’ women’s teams are often overlooked in a normal year. This year, with a pandemic still raging, teams playing out of season and the men’s basketball team flirting with a top ranking, it’s even easier for them to slip under the radar.
But that’s not how it should be. With every women’s team at Michigan either playing right now or beginning its season in the next few weeks, this year provides an opportunity like no other: to follow a multitude of contending teams, day in and day out.
Let women’s basketball coach Kim Barnes Arico tell it: “Shout out to all of the women’s coaches at the University of Michigan. I think part of what drew me to this incredible university was to have an opportunity to work with the best and to learn from the best. And the University of Michigan has some of the greatest female coaches in the world, and I get to be surrounded by them and learn from them every day.”
In almost every women’s sport, the Wolverines have a reputation as the team no one else in the conference wants to play. Take, for instance, the two teams that share Crisler Center with men’s basketball.
The women’s basketball team is one of the only women’s teams at Michigan largely without a storied history of success, but that could change this year. If the Wolverines can make it to the finals of the Big Ten Tournament, get better than a 7-seed in the NCAA Tournament or advance to the Sweet Sixteen, they will notch the best season in program history. (ESPN bracketologist Charlie Creme has Michigan as a 5-seed in his latest update.) Already this year, women’s basketball has hit a few smaller milestones: Junior forward Naz Hillmon scored a program-record 50 points against Ohio State and the Wolverines beat powerhouse Notre Dame for the first time in 12 years.
“I think it just really speaks to the character and the maturity and the experience of this group,” Barnes Arico told The Daily. “We didn’t have an opportunity to finish last season and go to the NCAA Tournament, and COVID hit, we were all sent home. And … to then have the opportunity to come back to campus and try to create something incredibly special. And they’ve done a few things in this season that hadn’t been done before in our program history. I think that just speaks to the commitment to the focus and, really, to the gratitude.”
Hillmon is a contender for National Player of the Year. Around her, juniors Amy Dilk and Leigha Brown lift the rest of the team up. More importantly, this is a team with chemistry on the court and off it.
Despite a large number of postponements and cancellations, this looks like a team that could make noise in March and establish the Wolverines’ program as one to consistently watch for.
“Michigan’s about winning championships, this university has won a tremendous amount of championships. And it’s a long history, with the exception, probably, of women’s basketball,” Barnes Arico said. “So that’s always a goal of ours. And that’s definitely a goal moving forward.”
Meanwhile, women’s gymnastics has one of the more terrifying 1-2-3 punches in the country with all-arounders Natalie Wojcik, Sierra Brooks and Gabby Wilson. Wojcik — the 2019 NCAA beam champion — has four titles this season on beam and in the all-around and one title each on floor and bars. Wilson has three floor titles; Brooks has two titles on vault and one each on beam and the all-around.
The team, which is gunning for its seventh-straight Big Ten championship, has enough difficulty and depth that even after counting two falls on floor at its Big Five meet Saturday, it still finished second. If the Wolverines, currently ranked No. 5 in the country, can find a bit more consistency, they are fully capable of getting over the hump and making the national finals.
“We definitely wanna win Big Tens, obviously, and then we want to be the four on the floor (at NCAA Championships),” Brooks said Saturday. “We know how capable we are, we know how high of a level we can compete at, so we just wanna really find our stride and keep going with it. Honestly, we had one messed up rotation on floor today but looking at our other three events, they’re amazing and we can do so much, so I just think we really have big goals. We wanna win nationals, we wanna do all those amazing things.”
Gymnastics and basketball aren’t the only programs in search of championships. Women’s swimming and diving is ranked No. 11 and rounding into form as NCAA Championships approach. Freshman Ziyah Holman, a sprinter on the track team, has been a contender for national titles since her first meet. Miller, just a freshman, looks fully capable of helping women’s tennis maintain its success even after graduating much of its top talent. Water polo, ranked No. 6 in the country, has four consecutive conference titles.
Those aren’t the only intriguing storylines, either. Women’s lacrosse, much improved from its early days after becoming varsity in 2014, is looking to shake off a tough start. Field hockey, always a Big Ten and national contender, has to wait a bit longer to kick off after a few postponements but has a team loaded with talent. Come Mar. 13, rowing finally gets to compete again after having its 2020 season canceled before it even began.
Women’s teams know more than anyone that in sports, nothing is given. Many of them had their sports postponed to the spring and waited through a long fall not knowing when they’d get to compete again. Now, they’re all playing at the same time, competing for airtime.
“In this global pandemic, if it’s taught us anything, it’s that we need to appreciate the moments and really not look past the moment and try to be the best that we can, in that individual moment, because we don’t know what tomorrow is gonna bring,” Barnes Arico said. “And for us, that’s really held true, because we’ve been put on pause or games have been canceled at the last minute … so we just hope for an opportunity tomorrow.”
Added gymnastics coach Bev Plocki after the Big Five meet: “We’re grateful for every day that we get, even the difficult days like today.”
Women’s teams are used to being overlooked, and this year, COVID-19 has made the circumstances even less ideal. But the Wolverines’ women’s teams are still here — and they’re as good as ever.
So this week, if you’re flipping through the channels looking for something to watch, tune into one of Michigan’s women’s teams.
You’ll be in for a treat.
In her four years at Michigan, Gerson has covered just about every women’s team at Michigan and will long cherish her memories of playoff field hockey, softball home runs and sparkly gymnastics leotards. After spending three years as one of the few women covering Michigan football and men’s basketball — and women’s sports whenever she could — she hopes this initiative brings light to the accomplishments of women both in sports and sports journalism and the work they do day in and day out.
She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @aria_gerson.
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