A familiar scene played out Saturday night as the Michigan men’s gymnastics team hosted defending national champion and top-ranked Oklahoma at Cliff Keen Arena before a lively crowd of 1,187. Having the experience of already competing this season and a home-crowd exhibiting spirit similar to what you would experience around the corner at Yost Ice Arena, the Wolverines seemed to have the momentum necessary to pull off an upset against an Oklahoma squad that sputtered out of the gate. But just like last year, the Sooners came back and defeated the Wolverines 214.275- 208.650.
“We were pretty awful at the beginning,” Oklahoma coach Mark Williams said. “Last time we came up here, we did the exact same thing.”
Beginning with an excellent all-around performance on the pommel horse, the Wolverines surged ahead after two events. But just as the first-home-match jitters subsided and the crowd energy increased, Oklahoma still-rings specialist Brett Covey scored an impressive 9.850, turning the match around for the Sooners.
“It was awesome … it was wonderful,” said Covey about his performance. “I had support from my team and just nailed it.”
Oklahoma took a narrow 105.7- 104.7 lead after three events and gained control of the match by demonstrating consistency through its final event.
Costly mistakes hurt the Wolverines late as they struggled on the horizontal bar. Some of Michigan’s best gymnasts fell off at key points in their routine.
“If we’re going to beat Oklahoma, we’re going to beat them with consistency and by not making mistakes,” Michigan coach Kurt Golder said.
With all that did go wrong Saturday night, there were reasons for Golder’s team to be optimistic. With three of Michigan’s top performers battling injuries and being nowhere near full strength, the Wolverines still competed closely with the nation’s best team. Michigan junior co-captain Chris Gatti was not able to participate in the match because of a hand injury, and two-time NCAA All-American Kris Zimmerman was limited to competing in just two of his usual six events.
Despite a nagging shoulder injury that caused him to take a medical red-shirt last year, Michigan fifth-year senior co-captain Scott Vetere was the top performer on the pommel horse – the only event he participated in.
“It’s very frustrating,” Vetere said of his rehabilitation. “It’s hard to get your confidence up and compete.”
While frustration may follow the Wolverines until they’re healthy, this team appears to have the emotional firepower and enthusiasm needed to overcome the challenges that accompany an injury-plagued lineup.
“We showed real good spirit, and we did not give up,” Golder said. “I’m real proud of our fight.”
When they weren’t cheering each other on, the Michigan gymnasts raised the energy inside Cliff Keen by launching t-shirts into the crowd and high-fiving the children that waved their outstretched arms over the dividers on the sideline.
“We’re definitely not nearly as good as we can be this year,” Golder said. “This is a team that’s really capable. At the end of the year, we can challenge for the national championship.”