By Glenn Miller Jr., Daily Sports Writer
Published March 18, 2012
For most Michigan teams, the last home game of each season is a special night dedicated to the seniors playing in Ann Arbor for their final time. But for the women’s gymnastics team, there was no senior night. Instead, it was an opportunity for the senior-less squad to challenge in-state rival Michigan State and improve its ranking before heading into the postseason.
The 21st-ranked Wolverines crushed the Spartans, 196.025-192.700, in front of a sold-out crowd at Cliff Keen Arena on Friday. Michigan (9-5, 4-2 Big Ten) was led by the performances of junior Katie Zurales and sophomore Joanna Sampson, who tied for the meet’s all-around title.
“I’m proud of what we did,” said Michigan coach Bev Plocki. “We’re getting better. It’s a little late in the season to still be saying that, but we need to be. We’re competing more relaxed, and we’re competing more aggressive.”
A strong start on vault gave the Wolverines an early advantage, as all six competitors finished with scores above 9.700. Sophomore Reema Zakahria commenced the meet for Michigan, giving the Wolverines their spark for the evening. Zurales finished with the team’s top score, 9.875, which earned her second-overall. Freshman Sachi Sugiyama and Sampson followed closely behind, finishing third and fourth, respectively. Contributions from freshman Annette Miele and sophomore Stephanie Colbert gave Michigan a total of 49.075 through the first rotation.
“It was exciting,” Zurales said. “It was really fun to start with Reema’s stuck vault — that was awesome. It just kind of got the meeting moving, and started us off strong.”
The Wolverines transferred their momentum over to bars, finishing another event with scores of 9.700 or higher. Headlined by Sampson’s event-winning 9.850, Michigan placed a total of three gymnasts on the podium. Sophomore Shelby Gies earned second for the event with a 9.825, recording a season-high score. Sugiyama tied for fourth on bars, followed by a pair of 9.700s from Miele and Zurales. The Wolverines continued to increase their lead by the halfway point of the meet with a total score of 97.900 through two events.
“After bars, I knew it was a good routine. I think it's one of the best ones I’ve done so far in a meet, at least for a couple of weeks. It felt really good, and I was pretty happy with it since I stuck my dismount.”
Michigan’s night peaked on the balance beam, as it tallied a season-high for the event, 49.150. Zurales led the Wolverines with an event-winning 9.875, her sixth time this season scoring above 9.800 on beam. Gies put together another career-best 9.850, followed by Miele and Sampson with a pair of 9.825s. Sugiyama rounded out the lineup with a 9.775, sealing Michigan’s favorable score in the third rotation.
“We’ve just been hammering away and hammering away,” Plocki said. “I wish I could say it’s a bunch of new things that we’ve implemented, (but) we’ve just continued to keep pounding on the fundamentals of what they need to do. They’re a young team, but they’re coming along and they’re finally getting it. The whole thing with beam is just being able to go up there and put yourself in the right mindset.”
Headed into the final event of the meet, the Wolverines looked to finish on floor in similar fashion to last week’s performance against Georgia. Zurales’ 9.900 earned her yet another event crown to complete an already impressive evening. Sampson and Miele followed in third and fourth, respectively. Michigan’s night was cemented by scores from Colbert and Sugiyama, giving the team a total of 48.975 for the event.
“I knew we needed a big score,” Zurales said. “Floor is really fun to dance to, and to get the crowd into it. It was really cool competing in here, too, with everyone so close. I just felt like I had to do it for the team and I wanted to do it for the team. I just went out there and hit a solid set.”
Four Wolverines finished the meet at the top of the podium for the all-around. Zurales and Sampson’s 39.350 earned the pair top honors, while the freshmen duo of Miele and Sugiyama tied for third with matching totals of 39.075.
“We have continually improved, especially in these last few weeks,” Sampson said. “Our confidence has been boosted a lot, and we’ve been continually doing better in the gym as well. I think its paying off and showing here.”
The results of Friday’s meet were crucial for Michigan. Not only did they post their highest score of all six home meets, the Wolverines also finished with their second-highest total of the season. In addition, Michigan’s regional qualifying score improved from 195.475 to 195.710.
Looking ahead to next week’s Big Ten Championships, the Wolverines needed to surpass Minnesota’s fourth-best score in the Big Ten to compete in the night session at Saturday’s tournament. Unfortunately for Michigan, the Golden Gophers retained their fourth spot at a quad meet on Saturday. Michigan, therefore, will be forced to compete out of the morning session in the hopes of raising a sixth-consecutive Big Ten Championship banner.
“I know we’re small and I know its been tough, but we’re ready,” Zurales said. “We’ve worked so hard this season. We really want to put it all together and make it all pay off. “