If any member of the No. 6 Michigan men’s gymnastics team didn’t get refocused by the team’s fourth-place finish Big Ten Championships, he sure did at practice last Monday.
Following mistake-filled intrasquads on pommel horse, rings and vault, Michigan assistant coach Xiao Yuan gathered the gymnasts in a corner of the floor for a passionate speech about the need for every athlete to be ready for the challenge of NCAA Championships.
“Xiao just made a point that it’s ‘go’ time,” junior Joe Catrambone said. “This is our final chance to prove something this year, end the year on a good note. If everyone doesn’t want to step up now, there’s the door.”
Since the disappointment at Big Tens, the Wolverines have held several formal intrasquads at each practice, judging routines only on hits or misses.
After difficulties the first two days, it seemed as if the intrasquads might sink the team to new lows. But after a light day Wednesday, the gymnasts bounced back at the end of the week with long strings of hit sets.
“I think our problem was definitely mental,” freshman Ben Baldus-Strauss said. “I think these intrasquads hone in on that. They make you have to step up in front of the whole team.”
Michigan coach Kurt Golder was pleased with the intrasquads and is looking forward to a favorable event rotation in Session I of team qualifiers, which will be held at 1 p.m. Thursday at Stanford’s Maples Pavilion. Even as the third team to pick its starting event, Michigan was able to get its first choice: starting on the bye, then moving to pommel horse, one of the team’s strengths.
In Michigan’s session are No. 2 Oklahoma, No. 3 Penn State and No. 7 Ohio State, along with No. 10 Nebraska and No. 11 William & Mary. Only three will make it to Friday’s team finals, with the battle for the third spot likely coming down to the Wolverines and Buckeyes. The top three from the evening session will also advance to team finals.
“We’ve got a hell of a challenge ahead of us,” Golder said. “We ended up in the tougher session, although I believe that we have a much better team than Ohio State.”
Golder plans to go with more conservative routines on the first day. The gymnasts may remove some of the riskier, higher-value skills from their sets, sacrificing some start value for added hit percentage and momentum – both of which were sorely lacking in the team’s Big Ten performance.
“To win a championship, it takes big scores,” said Golder, whose teams in the past have done better at NCAA Championships than Big Tens. “To qualify for a championship, it takes consistent performance. We’re probably going to treat the two days differently.”
And the team will probably treat the entire weekend differently than Big Ten Championships.
“I hope we can go out there and compete like there’s no pressure on us and we’ve got nothing to lose, because we don’t,” said junior Scott Bregman, who won’t compete but plans to travel to California along with sophomore Evan Heiter to cheer on his teammates. “And have fun – I think that’s been the missing element, just enjoyment.”
The team knows that after NCAAs, there are no more redemption meets. As Yuan said, it’s “go” time.