By Glenn Miller, Daily Sports Writer
Published February 13, 2012
All season long, the balance beam has been somewhat of a nemesis for the Michigan women’s gymnastics team. During Saturday night’s Masters Classic, the Wolverines displayed their newfound confidence and maturity by mastering the beam en route to posting a season-high score.
No. 22 Michigan finished in second place behind host school No. 8 Nebraska after posting a 195.825 in this weekend’s quad meet in Lincoln. Following the Wolverines were Washington and Southern Utah in third and fourth place, respectively.
Michigan (3-1 Big Ten, 6-1 overall) started out strong, led by its two freshmen on floor, Sachi Sugiyama and Annette Miele. Miele, who competed for the first time on floor last week, matched Sugiyama’s 9.775 in her first road performance. The duo was followed by sophomores Joanna Sampson and Reema Zakharia, who also posted identical 9.850 scores.
In their second rotation, the Wolverines hoped to capitalize on vault, an event that they've had success with this season. Sampson’s 9.875 score was closely followed by the impressive routines of Sugiyama and junior Katie Zurales. Sophomore Stephanie Colbert and junior Brittnee Martinez also contributed with favorable scores, as did Zakharia, who made her collegiate debut on vault.
“After vault in the second rotation, we had a lot of energy,” Sampson said. “We were staying relaxed, and I think that helped us throughout the entire meet and kept us moving through the final rotation.”
With a score of 97.850 at the halfway point, Michigan needed to sustain its momentum while transitioning onto the uneven bars. With three scores of 9.800 or above, the Wolverines continued with success on the night. Martinez led the squad with a score of 9.875, followed by 9.825s from the duo of Sugiyama and Miele. The score set a new career-high for Sugiyama and tied Miele’s previous best.
Despite its quality performance through the first three rotations, Michigan knew it still had to face the balance beam. The four-inch beam has consistently been a weakness in the Wolverines' routine this season.
But on Saturday night, it proved to be their strength. Michigan posted its best performance of the year on beam (48.975), thanks to Zurales’ event-winning 9.900 score. Gies followed by tying her career-high (9.800), as did Martinez and Sampson.
“We switched up the order this week so we could have our more consistent athletes go first in order to get a flow going,” said Michigan coach Bev Plocki. “We're capable of being very good there. It's just the mental (aspect) that we have to continue to improve upon.”
Zakharia, who competed out of the No. 6 spot in the lineup, covered for a teammate’s fall and solidified the night with a 9.725.
“I definitely felt a little more pressure,” Zakharia said. “My teammate fell before me, so they had to count my routine. I didn't let it affect me. I just tried to be as calm and collected as I could and take one element at a time.”
Though they finished the night in second, the Wolverines ended their second road trip with a season-high score of 195.825. The team’s success is merely a step in the right direction, according to Plocki, who felt that there is still plenty of room for improvement.
“This is the sport of gymnastics,” Plocki said. “There’s always some place we can improve on. ... We definitely did not peak tonight.”
Though Michigan wasn’t able to preserve its undefeated streak, the team gained something far more important — confidence.
“Having the meet we did tonight on the road — it being our best meet of the season so far — I think that instilled a lot of confidence in us and showed us all what we really can do, if we just continue to do things the way we know how to do them,” Sampson said.
The young squad will need to maintain its confidence as the Wolverines move deeper into the season and closer to regionals. Michigan has another opportunity to prove itself this Friday against Utah, which may come into Ann Arbor as the best team in the nation when the new rankings come out.
“We're finally putting the puzzle pieces together and getting the swing of things,” Zakharia said. “We're starting to transfer things from practice to meets. We've become more bonded than we've ever been before, and we're going to use that energy going forward.”