What does a gymnastics team do if it’s missing one of its superstars, four other scholarship athletes, and has to lean on freshmen to perform well in its season opener against Big Ten rival Ohio State?
The sixth-ranked Wolverines used a total team effort to demolish the Buckeyes 196.100-192.175 in front of 1,531 fans at Cliff Keen Arena Saturday night.
Missing Elise Ray, the NCAA 2001 all-around co-champion and a slew of other gymnasts, Michigan looked no further than its freshmen, mainly Becca Clauson and Jenny Deiley, to step up and perform to their abilities in a pressure packed situation.
“It’s great to see the freshmen up there already,” junior Calli Ryals said. “They really proved themselves today.”
“Right now, we’re competing without five of our 12 scholarship athletes,” Michigan coach Bev Plocki said. “That by itself demonstrates what kind of a job the rest of the team did here tonight.”
The Wolverines kicked the season off on the vault and got off to a quick start, posting a 48.850 overall. Ohio State ran into trouble on the uneven bars, having to count a fall. This left Michigan out in front with a quick 48.850-48.125 lead.
Trying to inspire his team, Ohio State coach Larry Cox started pounding on the mats rhythmically. Unfortunately for him, the Michigan faithful heard it too, and started chanting “Let’s Go Blue.” It would prove to be that kind of night for the Buckeyes.
On the next rotation, Michigan widened its lead to almost two points, as it switched to bars and survived a fall by sophomore Kara Rosella to post a 48.900 as a team. Despite the fall, Rosella wasn’t rattled, showing immense resilience and mental toughness by sticking her last two routines on the beam and floor.
Especially impressive was that she had never done her floor routine in competition before. Rosella’s performance earned her high praise from Plocki, who has seen her share of great athletes as a coach.
“Kara has impressed me, and I can’t remember a time when I’ve been as impressed with an athlete, and what the athlete has accomplished and learned in such a short period of time,” Plocki said. “She amazes me every day, and tonight she amazed me again.”
Rosella’s performance may have been the grittiest, but Deiley’s performance was the most spectacular. In her first meet as a Wolverine, she walked away as the all-around champion, out-dueling Ryals. Deiley was more surprised than anything, and was happier about what the team was able to do.
“I thought our team did awesome today, everyone did a really good job, and we’re definitely improving every day,” Deiley said.
Michigan continued to improve its scoring, perhaps an indication of its confidence growing throughout the match. The Wolverines posted a solid 49.000 on the beam, while the Buckeyes posted a respectable 48.700 on the floor.
Michigan then capped the night with an inspired performance on the floor, highlighted by two 9.925 performances by captain Janessa Grieco and Ryals. Ohio State had major trouble on the beam, and Michigan’s win was secured.
Ryals turned in a second-place performance in the all-around, while sophomore Chelsea Kroll finished third.
Ryals once again showed that even on a less than spectacular night, she’s still one of the best gymnasts out there.
“I was just ecstatic about how we did,” Ryals said. “I think one of the biggest things for us today was to show our confidence, and we totally did that. We rocked out today.”
For Michigan, getting healthy will be the main concern as the brunt of the season awaits. Ray will be out until mid-February, and several gymnasts are battling nagging injuries. With a meet against No. 11 Minnesota upcoming, Michigan will need to perfect its skills.
“There’s just little quirks here and there,” Ryals said. “A lot of our new skills, we’re still working, so the landings are still a little iffy.”
But for the present, Michigan is happy with its 39th-straight conference win. With performances like Saturday night, the Wolverines will not have to worry about how soon Ray will return. When she returns, though, Plocki feels good about the team’s chances.
“I think if you took that same percentage off of most teams, they’d feel the hurt,” Plocki said. “If you go through our scores and take out whatever the lowest counting score was, and you put in a 9.9, a 9.95 or a 10, and you add up the difference, that’s how much better we’ll be.”