CHICAGO – The Michigan men’s gymnastics team opened its season on Saturday night, and the scene was a far cry from the team’s final meet of last year.
On the night of last season’s team qualifiers at NCAAs in Oklahoma, the Wolverines sat dejected and silent, trying to absorb the fact that they wouldn’t be competing for a team title in 2006.
But on Saturday at the Windy City Invitational, the victorious Wolverines emerged to claim their award in jubilant clusters rather than a single-file line, arms over each other’s shoulders, shouting, “It’s great to be a Michigan Wolverine!”
No. 8 Michigan outperformed the meet’s five other squads with surprising ease, notching a total score of 212.75 – 1.05 points shy of last year’s season high. Illinois was a distant second (209.75), with rival Ohio State even further back (209.5).
What was different about this year?
Start with sophomore Ralph Rosso.
The Morganville, N.J., native competed in five of six events and never scored below an 8.0. His picture-perfect vault scored an 8.75, good for third place. His teammates mobbed him before he could even return to the end of the runway.
Once vault, Michigan’s final event and a source of some trouble, was complete, it would have taken a miraculous score of 39 points (out of a possible 40) for Illinois or Ohio State to catch the Maize and Blue.
Freshman Torrance Laury took fourth place on the still rings and parallel bars at his first collegiate meet. Finally, after Rosso’s vault, he could look at the scoreboard.
“(After vault) was when I found out for the first time that we had clinched it and won,” Laury said. “It was such a great feeling. I couldn’t believe it.”
Though Michigan finished first in every event but vault, no single apparatus went without a hitch. The Wolverines began the night on parallel bars, where two of the first three gymnasts did not hit their routines.
The next three, with little margin for error available, posted three straight scores above 9.0, boosting Michigan into first place, where it remained for the rest of the night.
“I knew we were going to win when we finished parallel bars,” Michigan coach Kurt Golder said. “I said to myself, ‘This is just like ’99, when we won the NCAAs.’ So many times by the time we were halfway through an event, we’d have one foot in the grave and one foot on a banana peel, and we’d walk away with four good hits.”
The same pattern continued throughout the night, with the team perpetually following up missed routines with hit sets.
“We were able to miss a routine and then get right back up and hit a good set,” said sophomore Scott Bregman, who tied for second place on floor exercise with a 9.25. “I think one thing that’s really different this year is that a missed set doesn’t mean a score in the fives – it means a score in the low eights.”
There was at least one Wolverine in the top three on each apparatus, with senior co-captain Justin Laury winning pommel horse (9.05). Senior co-captain Andrew Elkind and sophomore Joe Catrambone shared the high bar title (9.1).
Laury, in his first competition since 2005, looked like injury-marred 2006 had never happened, hitting all three of his routines. His pommel horse score was the only one to break into the 9.0 range.
The victory to open the season provides a huge confidence boost to the young Michigan team. But the Wolverines will not lose the intense focus that has marked them ever since their disappointment in Oklahoma.
“Obviously we’re real excited tonight about our victory,” Elkind said. “But we’re not going to think that this has us set up to win the rest of the season.”