LAS VEGAS – For Winter Cup preliminaries last Thursday, the crowd at the Las Vegas Sports Center was small and relaxed, as gymnasts from all over the country, including four Wolverines, fought tooth and nail for a spot in Saturday night’s finals.

That all changed Saturday night. With seven Senior National Team spots at stake, gymnastics fans mobbed the entrance and rushed to grab seats as soon as the doors opened – two hours before the competition.

“This is the first time I’ve ever seen, when they let people in, they were actually running in to their seats,” Michigan assistant coach Scott Vetere said. “That’s great for a gymnastics competition.”

With the standing-room-only crowd’s intensity exponentially higher for the finals, it was hard for two of Michigan’s four competitors, junior Ralph Rosso and freshman Thomas Kelley, to regain their focus of two days before.

By Saturday, both gymnasts had attained their weekend objective: Make it to finals. And while they had nothing to lose in the last session, instead of competing with extra aggression, they seemed to coast through the meet. Neither believed he had a shot at a national team spot.

“The first night, I felt pretty good,” said Vetere, noting that Rosso, Kelley and junior Joe Catrambone combined to hit 14 of 15 sets. “As far as (Saturday), I wasn’t very happy. . I thought Thomas and Ralph kind of took it light. They could have taken a more serious approach to the competition.”

Kelley hit his first four routines, but ran into trouble on floor and pommel horse to finish the night. He said this year’s competition was more of a “wash” for younger gymnasts than in the past, given the number and quality of older, more experienced gymnasts in the meet.

And Rosso, who recorded a clean hit in just one event Saturday, admitted to problems maintaining a sharp focus during the meet.

“I would say my main focus was (Thursday),” Rosso said. “I came in (Saturday) with a pretty lax attitude. I didn’t put any pressure on myself, and I guess in order to do well I have to put pressure on myself.”

Competition at the winter counterpart of the USA championships was far stiffer than it was last year. Paul Hamm, the 2004 Olympic All-Around champion, completed his sudden comeback with an all-around victory in the two-day meet. Another former Olympian, Blaine Wilson, competed in four events and looked as good as ever.

For Kelley especially, competing in the same meet as Wilson was a rare thrill. Just a few years ago, Kelley was a starstruck youngster getting his photo taken with Wilson.

“He was my idol growing up,” Kelley said. “I loved his gymnastics. I wanted to go to Ohio State just because he went to Ohio State.”

Once Kelley got a little older, he realized that going to Ohio State was “not a good decision at all,” but his admiration of Wilson remains to this day.

With their one individual meet of the season completed, the four Winter Cup Wolverines – Kelley, Rosso, Catrambone and sophomore Mel Santander – will get a weekend of rest before heading to California for the Pacific Coast Classic.

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