The Michigan men’s gymnastics team enters its biggest meet of the season as the underdog.
And that’s the way it wants it.
“I don’t think anybody expects a whole lot from us except us, and that can work out to our advantage,” senior Luke Bottke said. “All it takes is for one of the teams ranked above us to take something for granted, and we’ll knock them out.”
This Thursday in Norman, Okla., the Wolverines will battle five other teams, including No. 1 Oklahoma, No. 4 Illinois and No. 5 California, for three spots in the NCAA team finals on Friday. Michigan begins the meet on a bye rotation, before moving to the floor exercise, the best-case scenario.
Michigan coach Kurt Golder was shocked when, as the fourth-picking team, he was able to choose the floor exercise for Michigan’s starting apparatus.
“I couldn’t believe it,” Golder said. “Usually floor is the first one to disappear. Floor will go, and then vault will go. . They were our first two picks.”
Michigan was confident before, but the announcement of the event order gave the Wolverines an extra boost. The floor exercise is Michigan’s strongest event – it was ranked second in the country on floor as of March 28 – and should allow the team to begin on a high note.
Starting on the floor also means the Wolverines will follow normal Olympic order, which, over the course of the season, has yielded their best results. Weaker events, like the pommel horse and parallel bars, will be “hidden” between the team’s strengths, and there will be no oddly placed bye rotation to derail the momentum.
“In (the) Pacific Coast (Classic), it worked where we had the bye because we were trying to recuperate from high bar,” freshman Kent Caldwell said. “But it kind of stopped the flow. I think it’s going to be better to focus at the beginning and then just push straight through all the way to the end.”
The Wolverines are also optimistic about their upcoming performances on the pommel horse and parallel bars. Golder believes the Big Ten “debacle” on parallel bars, where four of the six competitors either came off the apparatus or fell on their dismounts, was a fluke performance. On the pommel horse, several gymnasts have reduced the difficulty of their routines, lowering their start values but increasing the likelihood that they will compete cleanly.
Freshman Phil Goldberg, a key competitor on the pommel horse, believes that even with the lower start values, the Wolverines will be a force to be reckoned with.
“It’s been shown that you don’t have to be an extraordinary pommel horse team to beat the best pommel horse team,” Goldberg said. “You just have to hit your sets. You don’t even have to have a high start value. If you hit your sets, you’ll be fine. You’ll be in there with the top pommel horse team.”
Big Ten vault champion senior Drew DiGiore, looking to boost the team score with hit sets on both the pommel horse and vault, believes a positive attitude will be crucial to success on the often-troublesome apparatus.
“If you are trying not to fall, chances are you’re going to fall,” DiGiore said. “But if you’re thinking about how well you’re going to hit (your routine), you’re going to hit it, and it’s going to be good. You can’t go in trying not to fall, because you’ll be too tentative and that’s how we’ve been swinging on pommel horse. . If we get away from that, it will be good.”
Unlike many of the other qualifying teams, the Wolverines are generally healthy. Those gymnasts with nagging aches and pains are confident that once the adrenaline of competition kicks in, they will be able to perform at their normal high level.
Every member of the team will need to bring his A-game because the fight for each spot in the finals will be fierce. The top three teams in each of the two sessions on Thursday earn a place at team finals on Friday.
“Oklahoma will be very strong at home, and they’ve been national champs three of the past four years,” senior Gerry Signorelli said. “Illinois has got a few guys that do some really big sets, so they’re going to have some high scores on certain events. And Cal – we’ve bumped them out (of the Super Six) before in my past three years here . but they’ve been doing really well this year.”
As usual, the Wolverines are confident in themselves and their teammates. To a man, their most important goal is to put up big scores for the team, with any individual accolades coming as an added bonus.
“I think because we’re the underdogs, people aren’t expecting us to make (team finals),” freshman Joe Catrambone said. “We have nothing to lose. We’ll just go out there and do our best, and I think we’re going to surprise a lot of teams by bumping the ranked teams that are above us.”