STATE COLLEGE – Forget Oklahoma.
One week after defeating the two-time national champion Sooners, the top-ranked Wolverines took on No. 2 Penn State.
In its biggest triumph of the season, the Michigan men’s gymnastics team pulled off a last-minute win, 216.75-215.8. The victory was the squad’s first in State College since 2001.
Michigan may have been ranked higher, but Penn State had the advantages.
In Recreation Hall, one of the toughest environments in collegiate gymnastics, a vociferous crowd was on hand to support their Nittany Lions.
And one more thing: The home team chooses the judges.
For the first time this season, the Wolverines failed to take a lead and hold it from the first rotation. But they proved they have that essential, intangible asset of all champions – heart.
Going into the final rotation, Michigan trailed Penn State by just one point. The Wolverines took to the parallel bars, one of four events in which they came into the meet ranked first in the country, while the Nittany Lions swung onto the high bar.
Desperately needing big hits, Michigan got them. The Penn State gymnasts thumped to the mat falling off of the high bar, and the Wolverines continued to roll.
The event culminated with stellar sets from the senior co-captains, Andrew Elkind and Justin Laury. Elkind posted a 9.45 to win the event, and Laury capped off Michigan’s comeback victory with a 9.2.
“I felt like the turning point was on (parallel) bars, when we nailed our first routine and they missed,” Michigan coach Kurt Golder said. “And then we hit, and then they missed. We were putting the pressure on them. When I started seeing that happen, that was the first time I got the feeling that we were going to win.”
A relatively large Michigan cheering section turned one block of the arena bright maize, banging a cowbell and engaging in responsive chants with the team. But the gymnasts got almost as much motivation from the roaring Penn State fans.
From start to finish, the home crowd filled the arena with noise. It bellowed for every hit Penn State routine and tried to throw the Wolverines off their game.
“It’s like a football game when there’s taunting,” Elkind said. “I was getting really mad, but I just transferred that anger to positive energy to use when I’m competing. When I was about to go on high bar, they conveniently decided to start up the ‘We are! Penn State!’ chant. I was getting so mad, and after (the routine), I’m sure I was giving them the evil eye, running back.”
The Wolverines entered the meet knowing they’d most likely have to come from behind. As the visitors, Michigan started the night on pommel horse with Penn State on floor – a near guarantee for an early Wolverine deficit.
And Michigan couldn’t have started much worse. Three of the six gymnasts came off the horse. But after moving to floor exercise, a historic Wolverine strength, the team got back on track.
Even the notoriously harsh Penn State judges could find few deductions in sophomores Scott Bregman and Kent Caldwell’s routines. The duo is currently ranked No. 2 and 3 in the nation on that event. Along with fellow sophomore Ralph Rosso, the three posted much-needed scores above 9.0, with Caldwell notching a 9.65 for first place.
“After floor, we said, ‘This is going to be our meet,’ ” Rosso said. “This is going to be a battle to the end, and we’re going to fight until the last dismount.”
They were right.
On the still rings, Michigan finally turned it all around. The Penn State fans made the arena literally shake every time a Nittany Lion stuck a landing, as if a freight train was approaching. Little did they know, the unstoppable force was Michigan.
With senior Aaron Rakes’s 9.35 routine, the string of hit routines characteristic of this year’s team began. Freshman Torrance Laury, Rosso, and Elkind all scored in the 9.0 range; Rosso tied for second on the event with a 9.6.
“We knew that going horse then floor, we were going to be down,” Rakes said. “And then going vault then rings, we were probably going to be down a little bit, so we knew the last two events we needed 12 hits to seal the deal. We did our thing, and I’m so glad we came out with a win.”