STATE COLLEGE – Just two rotations into Friday’s Big Ten Championships, the No. 6 Michigan men’s gymnastics team was almost completely silent, with heads hanging and hope gone.
The Wolverines’ dreams of winning a conference title were dashed. Michigan straggled into fourth place (353.00), more than seven points behind champion Penn State.
Weeks of focus on parallel bars, the team’s opening rotation, had paid off, helping the Wolverines to a strong start. Michigan coach Kurt Golder had shuffled the lineup coming into the meet. He sent up two of his best performers, freshman Chris Cameron and sophomore Mel Santander, earlier than their usual spots late in the rotation, and the experiment seemed to work. The noise of the gymnasts and their nearby fans was unrivaled as Michigan hit four of six routines.
But on high bar – the second rotation and one of Michigan’s strengths – everything fell apart.
“After (parallel) bars, I felt like we thought we had it wrapped up and kind of relaxed a little bit,” said junior Jamie Thompson, who posted a 15.15 on floor. “That’s where I honestly think we messed up on high bar.”
Four of Michigan’s six high bar sets included at least one fall.
Even the two hit routines, from freshman Ben Baldus-Strauss and Santander, didn’t earn very high scores.
With that, the Wolverines’ usually irrepressible enthusiasm was gone, along with any shot at a conference championship.
“The energy comes from hitting, not from falling,” senior co-captain Paul Woodward said. “After that high bar, you can’t win. It sucks to know after two events that everybody else in here has to have a terrible, terrible event. Horrific – and it’s not going to happen. You can’t win a meet hoping other people are going to screw up.”
Even though Michigan was never able to string together enough solid hits to regain any momentum, there were some bright spots.
Seven Wolverines made it to Saturday’s event finals thanks to their Friday showings, and freshman Thomas Kelley finished fifth in the all-around competition. Junior Phil Goldberg scored a Michigan- and career-high on rings with a near-perfect set (15.60). Sophomore David Chan’s meet-ending vault was another Michigan record (16.20).
“We definitely did have some good routines,” said Kelley, who won the Big Ten floor title and Freshman of the Year award on Saturday. “Jamie had a great floor routine. Chris had a good pommel horse routine. But it was too much up and down. That emotion swing threw us off a bit.”
None of those performances could put more than fleeting smiles on the Wolverines’ faces. Despite the valiant efforts of Michigan’s fan section, the team never got fired up again.
After the meet, Golder was unhappy but already looking forward to the NCAA Championships in two weeks.
“We’re disappointed and upset with our underachievement, but it’s now, ‘What do we do with that?’ ” Golder said. “I felt that we were capable of winning Big Tens – we’re that caliber of team – and I still do.”