COLUMBUS — It may have been the speech the coaches gave before the meet, telling the No. 5 Michigan men’s gymnastics team to just have fun.

Said Alsalah/Daily
Phil Goldberg of the Men’s Gymnastics team competes against Illinois on Saturday March 14, 2009.

It may have been senior co-captain Phil Goldberg snipping the head off a Brutus the Buckeye doll on the way to St. John Arena.

Or it may have been the team’s air of confidence heading into the meet, even though the Wolverines hadn’t won in Columbus since head coach Kurt Golder competed for Michigan himself.

Whatever it was, it worked. For the first time since 1977, Michigan beat Ohio State in Columbus, 357.60-349.70. Michigan not only got its highest overall score of the year but registered season highs on four of its six events against the sixth-ranked Buckeyes.

And the Wolverines had the time of their lives doing it.

“It was totally different,” said Michigan assistant coach Derek Croad, who at one point danced on the vault runway. “We were joking, we were having fun. If something went bad, we were still having fun.”

Even the coaches consciously changed their mindsets. Golder said spectators have often told him he doesn’t stop scowling until the meet is over. In Columbus, he made an effort to smile and relax, even as the two teams added a new chapter to the rivalry.

“Does anyone ever get their peak performance when they’re uptight?” Golder asked rhetorically. “Does anyone ever get their best being timid? The answer is no. Then, be confident. When you’re confident, it brings the best out of you.”

The saying held true for Michigan. From the start, the Wolverines looked looser and more confident than they had all season. The new mentality paid immediate dividends as they hit all six pommel horse routines to open the night.

Normally, a team starting on pommel horse falls behind by a significant margin after one rotation as the other team competes in the floor exercise, a higher-scoring event. But after one event, Michigan trailed the Buckeyes by just a tenth of a point.

“When we walked in the doors, we felt like we could win based on our preparation throughout the week in practice and our new attitude,” senior Ralph Rosso said. “But I think what sealed it was our pommel horse team, staying so close to Ohio State on floor.”

After the floor exercise, where sophomore Thomas Kelley won the individual title, Michigan grabbed a sizeable lead and never let go. The gymnasts posted their highest hit percentage of the season, hitting 31 of 35 sets. The few missed routines came amid clusters of clean performances.

The Wolverines cheered and laughed their way through the meet. They exploded for hit routines by redshirt freshman Devan Cote, who Goldberg has dubbed “The People’s Champion,” and led responsive chants with the small but vocal Michigan fan section.

“In my four years, this was absolutely the most fun we’ve ever had,” said senior Scott Bregman, who spent much of the meet imitating a train and telling his teammates to board the Fun Express. “This was the most laid-back (meet) and probably one of the best hit percentages. (Posting) our season-high at Ohio State? That’s unheard of and ridiculous and amazing.”

Sophomore Chris Cameron, who won the pommel-horse, parallel-bars and all-around titles, performed the last Michigan set of the night.

Returning to the bench, he joked, “Should we start singing?” All his teammates laughed but waited until the very end of the night for their celebration.

When the Wolverines win, they sing “The Victors” together after the meet. On Saturday, it followed Ohio State’s somber alma mater.

For Michigan’s seniors, who endured a loss to Illinois on their own Senior Night last weekend, the win was especially sweet. In the final regular-season meet of their careers and on the Senior Night of their biggest rivals, they left the stage exactly the way they wanted to.

On Saturday, every senior present crammed into the circle’s center to belt out their fight song.

“It felt like our Senior Night as opposed to theirs,” senior Joe Catrambone said. “It was a pretty good way to end a dual meet — my last dual.”

Catrambone, who tends to pace nervously beside his events before competing, looked relaxed in Columbus. He waited comfortably for the judge’s signal to begin prior to his high bar performance, going on to post his best score of the season (15.1).

For the whole team, the meet was concrete proof that staying loose — and having fun — can actually lead to winning.

“We actually did that,” Cameron said, marveling at the victory. “Knowing we can do it and doing it are two different things, and we just did it.”

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