Saturday was an emotional night for the No. 3 Michigan women’s gymnastics team’s seniors — co-captain Katie Zurales, Brittnee Martinez and Natalie Beilstein — as it marked their last time ever competing at Crisler Center.
Led by the seniors, the Wolverines (6-1 Big Ten, 17-1 overall) defeated Iowa State on senior night, 196.825-195.125.
“This group of seniors has put us in a position to legitimately contend for a national title,” said Michigan coach Bev Plocki. “That’s a pretty nice legacy. We’ve only got three routines new to our lineup over (the) last year. The resiliency this team showed hanging in there last year and getting through it, not to mention how much they’ve improved from last season to this (year) has been very impressive.
“Needless to say, they’ve been very important to our success over the years.”
This win was not only the third victory over Iowa State of the season, but it also marked the completion of the regular season with an undefeated home record.
“Throughout my four years of being on this team, I don’t think we’ve ever had a season like this,” Beilstein said. “We’re calm. We’re relaxed. I think we’re really confident hitting our routines, and I think it’s been showing.”
Michigan junior co-captain Joanna Sampson — the No. 2 all-around gymnast in the country as of March 5 — won her seventh all-around title of the season with a 39.500.
“I just hope that she has this kind of performance in the postseason, which I’m certain she will,” Plocki said. “I’m excited to be able to see what she’s going to do this year.”
The Wolverines began the meet by tying their season-high on vault with a 49.550. Each of the top-five counted scores consisted of stuck vault landings. Junior Stephanie Colbert, who was out last weekend resting her legs, led off with a Yurchenko full that scored a 9.875, good for third place. Zurales followed with an identical vault with more distance on the landing, scoring a 9.900 to finish second. The Wolverines dominated with a three-way tie for first from Beilstein, Sampson and freshman Austin Sheppard.
“It was the first one I stuck in competition, and I really just had the best feeling ever,” Sheppard said. “I’ve been practicing sticks all week, and I tend to do them only in warm-up in competitions, so to actually be able to do it was amazing.”
Iowa State started on the uneven bars and scored a 48.975 for a rotation filled with pike Tkatchev release moves. Michigan took the lead from the first event onward and never relinquished it.
After swapping events, the Wolverines struggled on bars. The first two competitors, junior Shelby Gies and sophomore Sachi Sugiyama, fell on their straddle Tkatchev and Gienger release moves, respectively. Zurales, the third gymnast up, hit under pressure and tied Sampson for second on the event with a 9.875. Beilstein anchored on bars, capping off the rotation with a career-high 9.925 to top the medal stand.
“We obviously counted a fall on bars, which is the first fall we have counted this whole season,” Plocki said. “I’m pretty fortunate to be standing here saying that, so I can’t complain about it. I’m glad we got it out of the way before we went into the post-season.”
Michigan redeemed itself on the balance beam. Gies led off again for the second event in a row and scored a 9.800 for her solid routine. Martinez and sophomore Annette Miele followed with scores of 9.850 and 9.825 to finish second and third, respectively. Cyclones sophomore Caitlin Brown secured a 9.875 to top the beam standings with a routine highlighted by a difficult backhandspring to one-handed backhandspring to back layout step-out flight series.
The Wolverines finished strong on floor. Sampson, the top floor exercise worker in the nation, scored a 9.925 to win the event for the seventh straight week. When she landed her final tumbling pass, the audience erupted into monstrous applause with chants of “10.”
“I have to admit, I was a little upset,” Plocki said. “I thought that floor routine tonight was absolutely a 10. I don’t know where they found deductions in that. I thought every landing was perfect, and her tumbling was sky high, but I’m not the judge.”
Junior Reema Zakharia tied Iowa State junior Henrietta Green for second with a 9.875, followed by a four-way tie with a score of 9.850 for third from Beilstein, freshman Briley Casanova, Sugiyama and Cyclone junior Milan Ivory.
“I wouldn’t say it was my best performance — at least not on my landings — but I would say it was exciting to get back out there one last time at Crisler,” Beilstein said.
Zurales uncharacteristically lost momentum and fell on her front tumbling pass, but because of the strong performances from her teammates, her score was dropped.
“This is just an emotional night for our seniors,” Plocki said. “The whole entire team wants it so badly for the seniors so I think they try a little too hard and sometimes, trying too hard is a problem.”
Beilstein has applied for a redshirt, as she sat out her junior season after injuring her Achilles.
“It’s definitely a possibility,” Beilstein said. “Having that year off last year was definitely one of the hardest things I’ve done in my career, so I’m excited to have one more year.”
Martinez and Zurales are having the best seasons of their careers. Martinez plans on pursuing coaching in northern California and Zurales plans on going to medical school.
“Katie has impressed me so much because she went through a series of injuries, surgeries and rehab,” Plocki said. “Most people would have written themselves off as an all-arounder, but we pushed her a little in that direction, and she responded really well. She came back last year, and got better and better.
“She’s finishing her career on the highest of highs.”