By Glenn Miller Jr., Daily Sports Writer
Published March 25, 2012
There are 19 Big Ten Championship banners that hang inside the Shepherd Training Center — home of the Michigan women’s gymnastics team. If all went according to plan, the Wolverines would have raised up their 20th on Saturday night.
But Michigan’s season hasn’t gone according to plan. It’s been riddled with unexpected injuries and flashes of inexperience.
The Wolverines will now have to wait another year to raise another banner.
Though, if there is a silver lining to Michigan’s fourth-place finish at the 2012 Big Ten Championships, it may be the difference a whole year can make. Just ask freshman Sachi Sugiyama, who took home Saturday’s Big Ten vault title in her rookie campaign.
No. 21 Michigan claimed the top spot in the morning session of Saturday’s event but was topped by three others during the second session inside Iowa’s Carver-Hawkeye Arena. The Wolverines’ 195.875 was fourth-best out of the eight teams competing, as Nebraska claimed its first Big Ten title with a 197.100 finish.
“It was so exhilarating,” Sugiyama said. “There’s so much energy going around. Everyone wanted it so badly. It just came down to who had the cleanest routines and who could hit today. We did the best we could today, and I’m proud of my team for it.”
Michigan (8-5 Big Ten, 13-8 overall) placed two competitors on the podium at the conclusion of the day’s events, while posting its fourth-highest overall score for the season. In addition to her vault crown, Sugiyama earned second on uneven bars after being bested by the Cornhuskers’ Lora Evenstad in the second session. Sophomore Joanna Sampson tied for runner-up on vault, contributing to the team’s second-highest score this season for the event. Both Sugiyama and Sampson were selected to the All-Championships Team, while junior Katie Zurales represented the team for the Big Ten Sportsmanship Award.
The Wolverines’ strong start on beam was executed without a single fall, as they tallied a 48.725. Freshmen Annette Miele led Michigan with a 9.800, her second time this season recording the team’s top score on beam. From the middle of the lineup, Zurales posted a 9.775, only to be followed by sophomore Shelby Gies’ 9.750. A pair of 9.700s from Sampson and sophomore Stephanie Colbert rounded out the rotation for the Wolverines. The team continued its streak of consecutive beam performances without counting a fall since its meet in February against Utah.
“The first event, you get your nerves out,” Zurales said. “It was challenging, but we started off solid. I am so proud of everyone. We all went out there and hit really solid routines. Again, I think we have a lot to be proud of, and I can't say that enough.”
In its second rotation, Michigan looked to continue its momentum on floor. Zurales’ team-leading 9.825 was accompanied by four other Wolverine scores of 9.700 or higher. A pair of 9.750s from Sugiyama and Miele was followed by Sampson and sophomore Reema Zakharia with 9.725 and 9.700, respectively. At the halfway point of the meet, Michigan (97.475) trailed both Illinois (97.850) and Michigan State (97.500).
Needing a spark of energy, the Wolverines completed a series of spectacular vault routines. Sugiyama’s event-winning 9.950 paved the way for Michigan, followed by Sampson’s 9.900, which tied for second. Colbert’s impressive 9.825 out of the leadoff spot was preceded by Zurales' 9.875 and Miele’s 9.825. The Wolverines finished with a total of 49.375 for the event, their highest score in a month. The freshman duo of Sugiyama and Miele both set new career-highs, while Colbert tied her season-high on vault.
“The team really helped to set her up for that, because we were just sticking one vault after another,” said Michigan coach Bev Plocki. “When you’re doing that, you help to build the scores. It was a beautiful vault, and she absolutely nailed the landing. It’s pretty impressive to come out your freshmen year winning first and second place on two of four events.”
As Michigan headed into the final event on bars, it trailed Illinois by one-tenth of a point. Another team-leading score by Sugiyama (9.900), contributed to the Wolverines’ late push to win. Miele followed with a 9.825, as did Zurales and Gies with a pair of 9.800s. In her first-ever bars routine, Colbert’s 9.700 sealed Michigan’s win over the Fighting Illini and a first-place finish in the morning session.
“After vault, I took it as a challenge,” Colbert said. “I've never competed on bars, and (I) knew it wasn't my best event but felt confident. I tried to tell myself that it's just another routine in the gym and focus on doing what I needed to do.”
Colbert’s final routine placed her as an all-arounder for the meet, as the Wolverines finished with five all-arounders for the first time this season. Zurales’ team-leading total of 39.275 was closely followed by Sugiyama’s 39.250. Miele broke her career-high with a 39.175, while Colbert’s 38.650 was her first career all-around score. Sampson finished the night with a 38.600 to complete the night for Michigan.
Sugiyama’s vault title made her the program’s 77th Big Ten individual champion and the program’s 14th Big Ten vault champion. The crown also continues the Wolverines’ streak of 22 straight conference meets with at least one Big Ten individual champion, dating back to 1991.
“I’m feeling amazing,” Sugiyama said. “It’s an indescribable feeling to go up on the podium for Michigan and win vault. To get that first-place medal around your neck is just so awesome.”
Though Michigan won’t raise its sixth-consecutive Big Ten banner this season, it still has the opportunity to win at NCAA Regionals — the team’s ultimate goal for the season. With Saturday’s score added to the team’s regional qualifying score, the Wolverines can now drop their 195.300 from the meet against Georgia. That will improve Michigan’s RQS from 195.710 to 195.825 before heading to Regionals on April 7.
The Wolverines will find out where they’ll compete on Monday at 3 p.m. during the NCAA Regionals Announcement Show. No matter the venue, Michigan will undoubtedly need its best performance of the season in order to make a reappearance to the Super Six appearance in the hopes of winning a national championship.
“I thought that with the exception of a couple small breaks we had on floor, we had an excellent meet,” Plocki said. “We’re young, we’ve improved throughout the season, and ultimately, we’re going home finishing higher than the ranking we came in. That’s definitely a win for us. We’re going to look forward to coming back and trying to regain our place at the top of the podium next year.”