Friday night must have felt like déjà vu for the Michigan women’s gymnastics team.

In what appeared to be a repeat of last week’s meet against Illinois, the Wolverines struggled on beam and were forced to rely on a dominant floor routine in the last event of the night.

It has become a trend this season, Michigan (4-0) started strong in Friday night’s meet against West Virginia but was unable to continue its success on the balance beam. The Mountaineers (5-2) then capitalized on the opportunity to overtake the 22nd-ranked Wolverines going into the final rotation. Led by sophomore Joanna Sampson’s all-around performance, Michigan’s poise on floor helped edge out No. 20 West Virginia, 194.650-194.050.

Despite being undefeated in its first three meets, Michigan’s overall team scores each week have been slightly disappointing. Since team score is the single determinant of NCAA ranking, wins and losses aren’t as crucial, but the Wolverines have still continued to slip from their No. 10 preseason rank.

“If we have to bite the bullet now and not be scoring what we want to score, or even potentially take a loss, then that’s what we’ll do to try and ensure we have kids healthy and prepared when they are in the lineups at the end when we need them,” said Michigan head coach Bev Plocki.

“At the end of the season, none of what happens now is going to matter, but it’s hard because everyone wants to put their best foot forward every weekend.”

Michigan dominated in its first rotation on vault, an event that the team has been consistent in all season. Two career-high scores by freshman Sachi Sugiyama (9.925) and junior Katie Zurales (9.900) led the Wolverines, followed by sophomores Stephanie Colbert and Joanna Sampson, who tied for third.

“It definitely gives us a lot of confidence when you have a nice start like that,” Zurales said. “It gets us going on a positive note. It gets the energy going and everyone excited. And we can use it for a springboard for the other events, too.”

Sampson and sophomore Brittnee Martinez tied for first on uneven bars, adding to Michigan’s impressive start. Sugiyama followed suit with a third-place finish, while nearly breaking another career-high on the night.

The Wolverines were forced to count a fall on beam, however, due to the absence of Katie Zurales from both the bars and beam lineups. Zurales, who didn’t compete in the all-around for the first time this season, was left out of the lineup for precautions about reinjuring a shoulder she irritated in practice.

“It was important for them to know that we can put five up in events and still survive,” Plocki said. “All those little things along the way that are confidence builders are what help them gain experience to know that when the pressure is on in some of the bigger competitions, they can do what they need to do. This team is getting more mature every week we go along.”

After a strong start on vault and bars, the balance beam once again proved to be Michigan’s downfall. Though they improved from last week’s disappointing performance, the Wolverines still had a few slip-ups and were unsatisfied with their final score. Nonetheless, Sampson continued her career-high night by posting Michigan’s top score for the event.

“I’ve become very good at blocking things out and staying focused, and the rest of the team is doing that well, too,” Sampson said. “We’re getting better and better each week. We’ll get those little things figured out for next week.”

The Wolverines were fortunate to have freshman Annette Miele perform on beam, as the extra score prevented having to count a fall that could have further damaged the team’s total.

Going into their final event on floor, Michigan trailed the Mountaineers, 146.075-145.825. Again, the Wolverines had to dig themselves out of the deficit while hoping that West Virginia found similar struggles on beam. Sampson capped her incredible night by earning first-place honors on floor, while winning her first career all-around title (39.300). Sophomore Reema Zakharia also joined Sampson at the top of the podium for the event.

“I’ve just been going to the gym and doing my thing,” Sampson said. “I’m coming in with a lot of confidence and treating each practice like a meet. It’s starting to pay off, and I hope it continues.”

Of course, the night wouldn’t be complete without stellar performances by Sugiyama and Zurales, both of whom are accustomed to leading their team back to victory. Miele, who made her collegiate debut on floor, was the final competitor to seal the Wolverines’ close victory over West Virginia.

“Bev just said, ‘It’s your time to shine, this is what you’ve worked for,’ ” Miele said. “I just got really excited. It really just pumped me up and maybe gave me a little bit too much energy on my first pass, but I was just excited.”

It seems fitting that Miele was asked to close out Friday’s narrow contest for her young team. Three of the Wolverines’ four wins this season have been decided in the final rotation of the meet, demanding maturity and confidence from the inexperienced squad.

“Every time we do it, it builds confidence that they can do it again,” Plocki said.
“It’s a very young team, and we just have to have patience and keep doing what we’re doing. They are practicing well and doing better in competition. We just have to keep telling them the same things. As they gain more experience, they’ll become more mentally tough and aggressive.”

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