The No. 10 Michigan women’s gymnastics team may be going to its 11th straight NCAA Championships in Lincoln, Neb., and may have won its fifth-straight Big Ten title and sixth regional championship, but this year has been anything but normal.
“This is definitely not a typical Michigan season,” Michigan coach Bev Plocki said. “I didn’t really know what was going to happen. I was obviously extremely nervous.”
This season has been about much more than championships. It has been about heart, coming together as a team and overcoming obstacles. Most importantly, the adversity has produced new stars that have stepped up to fill the void left by the injured.
“This team this year has put 200 percent of themselves into it, more than any of us knew they even had to put into it,” Plocki said.
The adversity started with the season-ending shoulder injury to superstar Elise Ray in December. Then, 2001 Junior Olympic all-around champion Rachel Colon was ruled academically ineligible. Kallie Steffes suffered a season-ending femur injury, and Christine Mantilia went down with a torn ACL. Suddenly, nearly half the lineup was on the sidelines.
The Wolverines were desperately thin in all areas, but especially in the uneven bars, where both Ray and Mantilia would have been regulars. So Michigan turned to untested and unproven gymnasts to get through.
The new lineup worked for a little bit, as the Wolverines rolled through their first three meets. But the wheels came off the wagon in East Lansing on Feb. 2, when Michigan had its worst meet in years. Running five gymnasts on some events, Michigan counted numerous falls and had its streak of 40 conference wins end.
After the debacle, there was a team meeting in which coaches gave the gymnasts a choice to either go out there and hit, or throw in the towel. The team responded in spectacular fashion.
“I’ve coached for about 20 years, and this is the second time ever in my whole career that I’ve been able to work with a group of kids that have really pulled together in a very unselfish way and been always all about the team,” assistant coach Joanne Bowers said. “They’re very, very set on their goals as a group.”
“Every week I’ve been more impressed than the week before about the toughness and determination of these kids,” Plocki said. “I just have to give them so much credit for just hanging in there.”
The Wolverines received contributions from everyone during their resurgence. Senior Janessa Grieco led the way, while junior Calli Ryals picked up her end of the leadership responsibilities. Big Ten Freshman of the Year Jenny Deiley continued to shine, putting together a very impressive season that included four all-around titles. Her maturity and work ethic has helped make her a consistent performer, while her big meet mentality has given her a knack for the spectacular.
Becca Clauson progressed nicely into a solid three-event gymnast, while Lauren Mirkovich, Kara Rosella and Chelsea Kroll have all stepped into key roles. Rosella especially has come a long way, and Mirkovich has been impressive in her first college season.
Erica Rubin has stepped up when needed, and even those who have been out have been an encouragement.
“I always knew this team would bounce back,” Grieco said. “And honestly, I was happier that we had our bad days then than at the end of the year.”
Michigan’s coaching staff has also helped to keep the team together. Assistant coach Scott Sherman has guided the team through its bar problems, while Bowers has helped make the beam one of the Wolverines’ strongest events. Plocki’s accomplishments have been extraordinary, leading yet another team to national prominence.
Michigan grew up this season, and grew up quickly. Posting stellar scores after spring break, the Wolverines went toe-to-toe with some of the best in the nation and did their best under the most intense pressure.
So now, the Wolverines face their final challenge of the season as they look forward to Nationals. Michigan is peaking at the right time – putting together its best performances under pressure the last two meets. With a preliminary draw featuring No. 1 UCLA, No. 5 Alabama, No. 3 Arizona State and No. 6 Stanford, Michigan has its work cut out for it to get to the Super Six. But Plocki has learned to not count this year’s team out.
“In years past, when we’ve technically had more depth and more talent on paper, my teams have not been as confident as this team is right now,” Plocki said. “If we just pay attention to ourselves and wait for someone to open the door for us, we’re going to step through it.”
Champions are built on the journey to the crown, and the Wolverines have certainly had a journey to be remembered.