Saturday, March 2, marked multiple milestones for the No. 3 Michigan women’s gymnastics team.
Michigan coach Bev Plocki earned her 600th career win at the dual meet against Michigan State, joining Greg Marsden of Utah and D.D. Breaux of LSU as the only active NCAA Division I women’s gymnastics coaches who have reached that mark.
“I don’t feel like this is my award,” Plocki said. “The gymnasts do all the work. That accolade goes to every Michigan athlete to ever wear a Maize and Blue leotard. They are the ones who deserve it.”
In addition to Plocki’s success, Michigan (6-1 Big Ten, 13-1 overall) obtained not only its highest road score of the season, 197.300, at the Jenison Field House, but also secured a share of the regular-season championship title, having completed all of its conference meets with only one loss. Minnesota and Nebraska, currently 4-1 in the Big Ten, have two meets remaining. If one or both teams finish the conference season 6-1, they will share the title with the Wolverines. Because each Big Ten team is facing every other Big Ten team this season, the regular-season championship title has been implemented for the first time in history by the conference.
Individually, junior co-captain Joanna Sampson and junior Shelby Gies highlighted the dual meet by claiming Big Ten Gymnast of the Week and Event Specialist of the Week titles, respectively.
Sampson scored a career-high 39.650 in the all-around, which ranks as the sixth-highest all-around score in program history and moves her up to the No. 2 all-around gymnast in the country with a 39.500 regional qualifying score (RQS). An RQS is obtained by taking an individual’s top six regular-season scores — three of which must be from away meets — eliminating the highest score and then averaging the remaining five.
Gies earned her first Big Ten honor after setting career-bests in the two events she competed in — a 9.900 on the uneven bars and a 9.925 on the balance beam.
“I was so excited for her,” Plocki said. “She has been doing such good-quality beam routines all season long and for whatever reason, the judges have not wanted to give her that big score she deserved. She stuck her dismount cold tonight. In the past, she’s had a tiny hop, but she stuck it tonight. When the scores came up, her goal was to hit a 9.900.
She got a 9.925, and that made everyone’s night.”
Michigan started out the meet on bars, where Gies and Sampson tied for first after Gies’ original 9.850 was raised to a 9.900. Judge No. 2, Rachel Lethorn, gave her a 9.950 for her routine.
“I had my first mess-up last weekend on bars so I just wanted to come out here, not hold back or have any regrets and transfer what I’ve been doing in practice to the meet,” Gies said.
The Wolverines led the Spartans 49.350-48.850 after bars, and never relinquished their lead. In fact, they actually increased the gap from rotation to rotation.
On vault, Sampson topped the standings with her near-flawless Yurchenko full that scored a 9.950 to help Michigan match its bars total.
“Joanna had the best vault of her season,” Plocki said. “It was huge and she just stuck it cold. I don’t really know how she could have done that any better.”
The previous week, Sampson did not train or compete vault to rest her ankles, and evidently, that strategy worked.
“Our plan for resting last week was to give me a little break towards the end of the season so we could finish the season out strong and hopefully not have to sub me out again,” Sampson said.
Rounding out the top three on vault were Michigan State’s Taira Neal and Wolverine freshman Austin Sheppard, who scored 9.925 and 9.900, respectively.
“We can’t wait for (Austin) to figure out how to stick that vault because it’s been absolutely beautiful and huge,” Plocki said. “If she can find the landing and stick it, I don’t know what any judge would be able to deduct her for.”
The Wolverines continued to impress on floor exercise, scoring a 49.425, their highest event total of the night. Sampson dominated floor with a 9.950. After this weekend, her score moved her up in the overall rankings to become the No. 1 floor exercise worker in the country.
“Her floor routine has just been so spectacular since we added the double layout to it,” Plocki said.
Senior co-captain Katie Zurales placed second with a 9.900, and junior Stephanie Colbert, freshman Briley Casanova and Michigan State’s Dani Levy tied for third with identical scores of a 9.875.
Michigan finished on beam with a 49.175. Gies, who was in the lead-off position and has a unique flight series – one-handed backhandspring connected to a layout stepout – that she just incorporated into her routine this year, finished first, and Sampson tied Michigan State’s Alina Cartwright for third with a 9.850.
“It’s hard ending on beam just because you have to control your adrenaline you have from floor,” Sampson said.
The only fall of the night from the Wolverines was from Zurales, who anchored on beam.
“Katie had an uncharacteristic fall, but in a way I’m kind of glad it happened too because she hasn’t fallen all season long, so at least now there’s not that pressure on her of not falling,” Plocki said.
By focusing in practice on sticking skills, hitting handstands, and fighting for every tenth, as well as strategically resting athletes from week to week to prevent burnout, the Wolverines have been able to translate what they are doing in practice to competition.
“Starting next week, ideally we will be putting a full strength lineup back together,” Plocki said. “My staff and I have already been talking about what a difficult job it’s going to be to try to determine what our final lineups are going to be for this year. It’s a very nice problem to have but still, in all it makes our jobs difficult trying to figure out exactly what the right formula is going to be.”