It”s that time of year again in women”s college gymnastics. The time when the cream of the crop from around the nation will gather to decide which one is supreme. The time when just .025 of a point can mean the difference between glory and defeat.
Not surprisingly, Michigan once again finds itself as part of the elite dozen which will compete for the crown. And, not surprisingly, it will be facing the usual contenders from the past few years. The only apparent difference from last season is that Michigan will not be carrying the burden of a No. 1 ranking, which now belongs to UCLA. Without this added pressure which seemingly hurt Michigan”s chances of winning last year the Wolverines are looking to surprise the nation and bring home their first national championship.
This year will be Michigan”s ninth-consecutive national championship appearance and 10th overall. Although they have never won, the Wolverines finished as runner-up twice in 1995 at Georgia and in 1999 at Utah. Last season they entered nationals ranked first in the nation, but could manage just a sixth-place finish.
Talent has never been a problem for the Wolverines. In the past decade, some of the finest college gymnasts in the nation have passed through the Michigan program under the Michigan coach Bev Plocki. First-Team All-Americans such as Beth Wymer, Wendy Marshall and Sarah Cain were all once leaders of the Michigan program. The difficulty for Michigan has always been maintaining mental toughness in pressure situations. Plocki hopes that her current team has learned to deal with the pressure of a big meet in order to come out on top.
“All we can do as a team is do exactly what we”ve been doing,” Plocki said. “Even though this is the championship, we cannot treat it any differently than a regular meet. We have to be able to focus, relax and just give it everything we”ve got.”
Maintaining focus will certainly be difficult considering the setting of this year”s national championship. The meet will be held at Stegeman Coliseum in Georgia, one of the most hostile gymnastics environments in the nation. The Bulldogs who are always expected to have a large crowd in attendance will be able to feed off its energy, while their opponents will have fight through it.
But having already competed there earlier this year, Plocki and her squad feel that they hold a slight advantage over some of their competitors.
“We have all been there so even the freshman have seen it,” Plocki said. “The team knows where they are going to compete. But, I guarantee that if Georgia makes the Super Six, the fans will be going nuts. It”s just something we will have to deal with, we will have to concentrate and focus through the crowd”s noise.”
Although the hostile crowd is obviously a factor working against Michigan, the Wolverines do have a few things going their way. In Saturday”s preliminary round, Michigan is scheduled to start on the uneven bars and finish on the vault with the balance beam and floor exercise sandwiched in between. Unlike most meets this year, the team will not have to face the pressure of finishing upon the balance beam. Considering the beam problems the Wolverines have experienced this season, they could not be happier with the rotation.
“I am pleased with the pick we got,” Michigan senior Bridget Knaeble said. “We couldn”t ask for a better rotation. It should give us an edge mentally.”
“I like this rotation because it will allow is to get out of the gate strong,” Plocki added. “Having the beam in the middle is good because the outcome of the meet will not be riding on our performance on that event. We have a high level of confidence on the floor and the vault, so all the momentum should be in our favor.”
Another advantage the Wolverines have is not being ranked as the best team in the nation. Although this statistically means that it won”t be the best team at nationals, Michigan felt that the pressure of holding the top ranking at nationals last year worked against it. The Wolverines seem to be just as confident going into this year”s competition ranked fourth as they were last year.
“This team has a slight advantage because nobody expects us to win,” Plocki said. “(No. 1 ranked) UCLA has all the pressure this year, nobody will be talking about Michigan there. Our kids can relax because we really have nothing to lose.”
“I think it”s great not going in at the top,” Michigan freshman Elise Ray said. “This way, we have all that room to climb and there is no pressure on us.”
In Saturday”s preliminary round, Michigan will be competing against Alabama, Florida, Oklahoma, Oregon State and UCLA. In the evening bracket, Georgia, Arizona, Denver, Nebraska, Stanford and Utah will be matched up together. The top three teams from each bracket will advance to the Super Six round on Friday evening to determine the national champion. The individual competition will be held on Saturday evening.