This Saturday, the No. 6 Michigan men’s gymnastics team will jump directly into the dual-meet season fire.
Their first opponent? Defending national champion Penn State.
The Nittany Lions are ranked first in the Big Ten, second in the nation and are coming off trouncing Army at State College last Saturday. Penn State’s national title-winning roster remains largely intact.
Its only major loss to graduation was Matt Cohen, who won the Nissen-Emery Award as the nation’s most outstanding senior. And like most teams, Penn State has added several talented freshmen.
The Wolverines are not about to let the Nittany Lions intimidate them on their home turf, though.
“They were competing at home last weekend, so they had an advantage,” junior Joe Catrambone said. “I’m not saying that they’re not that good, but I don’t think they’re better than (top-ranked) Stanford at this point. . I just think if everyone’s in the zone for this meet and everyone’s focused, we should have a good showing and come out on top.”
Stanford scored four points lower than Penn State last weekend in its opening-meet victory at the Windy City Invitational.
Last season, Michigan entered Penn State’s Rec Hall, the proverbial lion’s den of men’s collegiate gymnastics. Although the arena is known for its raucous fans and home-team advantage, Michigan emerged victorious, handing Penn State one of its two losses.
Thanks to that last-rotation win, revenge may be a factor this time around.
“It’s kind of in the back of our mind, but it’s a new year,” said Penn State junior Derek Helsby, who won a bronze medal on the pommel horse at the World University Games this summer. “The competition will be the same as always. You come in, you do your job and you go home.”
Though it’s difficult to compare scores this early in the season, especially with the new scoring code, Penn State’s team total of 358.5 is impressive. It may not be an entirely accurate reflection of the team’s talent because home teams choose their judges, but the Nittany Lions’ solid scores reflect the team’s consistency on every event. Almost every counting score was 14 or higher.
“Looking at this past week, we have a lot to improve on, but we were pretty pleased with our performance (against Army),” Helsby said. “It was a strong showing, but there are definitely some areas that need to be worked on, namely high bar. . We’re going to need to do better on that coming into Michigan.”
Penn State competed without senior Tommy Ramos, one of its best high bar men, due to elbow problems. His status for tomorrow is unknown. Last Saturday, only junior all-arounder Casey Sandy, possibly Penn State’s top overall gymnast, scored higher than a 14 on the event.
A Michigan performance on par with last weekend’s in Chicago will not be enough to beat Penn State, even with the fans and judges on Michigan’s side.
High bar and rings, two events where judging has become stricter, have been the Wolverines’ trouble areas. On high bar, a judge can make significant deductions if a gymnast doesn’t finish certain elements within 15 degrees of a perfectly vertical handstand. And on rings, gymnasts lose tenths by not holding strength skills in the proper position or for a minimum of two seconds.
But having the crowd on their side should be a major lift for the Wolverines. The team hopes for an exuberant crowd this weekend much like the one that packed Cliff Keen Arena for its triumphant showdown with powerhouse Oklahoma last season.
“I think getting off on a good note, having solid floor, six hits in a row, will definitely lift the energy,” Catrambone said. “I think being at home with the fans helping us out will make things a little bit easier.”