CHICAGO – With a crowd of 1,400 watching, freshman Thomas Kelley saluted the high bar judges at Illinois-Chicago’s Physical Education Building. With his routine preceded by a fall, Kelley’s job was not only to anchor the lineup but also to spark a rally for the Michigan men’s gymnastics team.
And Kelley had more than his team and a crowd of strangers to impress. Among those in the stands were his parents, much of his extended family and even two of his grade-school teachers.
The Libertyville, Ill., native came through in fine fashion, nailing his demanding three-release set to post a 14.40, the Wolverines’ best high-bar score and third-best overall on the event.
But Kelley’s brilliance, like Michigan’s, came in flashes. After finishing third of seven teams in the Windy City Invitational, Michigan knows it has a promising future, but plenty of things to work on.
In the opening meet of the season, the sixth-ranked Wolverines finished behind No. 1 Stanford (354.45) and No. 8 Illinois (347.50), with a team total of 344.45. Despite a slightly subpar performance they managed to edge No. 4 Ohio State (341.20) to fourth place.
Though they couldn’t defend last year’s Windy City title, the Wolverines remained upbeat after the meet, viewing it as a learning experience.
“I think that it’s a good starting point,” junior Ralph Rosso said. “I’m glad we made mistakes, because the only way to learn is to learn from your mistakes.”
While the team never wants to lose a meet, Saturday night’s finish fits in with the season plan to build steadily towards NCAA Championships in April. Last season, the Wolverines blasted out of the gates and fizzled down the stretch.
In 2008, Michigan hopes to peak just when the scores matter most.
“Finishing third is OK here as long as we get a lot of incentive from it,” Michigan coach Kurt Golder said. “I’d rather win, but Stanford beat us by 10 points tonight. We’ve got to make that up.”
The Wolverines’ night began with trouble on the parallel bars, where two of the team’s first four gymnasts came off during their sets. But senior co-captains Paul Woodward and Arren Yoshimura delivered strong sets in the clutch, and freshman Chris Cameron finished the event with his trademark steadiness.
The team seemed to right itself further on the high bar, giving a momentum boost as the Wolverines rolled into floor exercise, always one of Michigan’s strong events. The team didn’t post any floor scores lower than 14.00.
Pommel horse was both a low and high point for the team. While three gymnasts came off the historically troublesome apparatus, sophomores Mel Santander and David Chan, as well as lineup anchor Cameron, came through with solid routines. Both Santander and Chan have been inconsistent at times in competition, making their hit routines even more gratifying.
But the entire pommels squad is capable of the same high-quality sets.
“Pommels was a little upsetting, because everyone that does horse can hit a routine,” junior Joe Catrambone said. “When we get in the meet, people start tensing up. They don’t swing like they normally do. . Once we hit horse together as a team, no one will be able to touch us.”
After a shaky showing on rings, Michigan finished the night with a run of six straight scores over 15 on the vault, pushing the team into third place. Michigan was fortunate, Golder said, to get credit for many of the strength skills on rings. He said the gymnasts will need to focus on holding their skills for the mandatory two seconds and keeping themselves in the proper positions.
After testing their mettle against Stanford, Michigan now faces another important challenge – taking on No. 2 Penn State, the defending national champion, next Saturday in Ann Arbor.