By Ashlee Buhler
When the confetti came falling down at the conclusion of the 2021 NCAA Championships in Fort Worth, it was the Michigan Wolverines who held the trophy in their hands. It was a performance for the record books and one that added Michigan’s name to an exclusive list of only seven programs who have won an NCAA title in the last 39 years.
As a result, the Wolverines entered the 2022 season in an unfamiliar position. Never in program history have they started the season as the number one team in the nation. Never have they faced the pressure and expectations that comes with being the defending national champions. Historically, Michigan has been the team chasing others. This season, they’re the ones everyone else is chasing.
One month out from the start of the 2022 season, Inside Gymnastics went behind the scenes with the Wolverines; catching a glimpse of their pre-season preparations. They were training with confidence, showing remarkable consistency, and performing routines that were postseason ready. It was just as clear then as it is now—the Wolverines haven’t slowed down one bit since that fateful day in Fort Worth.
“I was concerned that they would kick back and say, ‘Hey, we worked so hard, we won a national championship—we deserve to take the summer off.’ And actually, the absolute opposite was true,” head coach Bev Plocki said when we visited in November. “When we opened the doors to the gym again, the athletes came back in and I don’t think they’ve ever worked harder.”
This year the Wolverines have upgraded routines, new faces in the lineups, and a burning desire to prove their performance last season wasn’t just a fluke. The key has been making the gym their happy place, keeping the energy high, the attitudes positive, and focusing on beating their own performances each week, rather than meeting outside expectations. It’s a philosophy that has been working well for them.
At the midway point of the regular season Michigan remains the number one ranked team in the national rankings with a team average exceeding 198. It’s an incredible feat considering that in the program’s 40+ years of existence, that prestigious 198 mark had always eluded them. It wasn’t until last season, March 7 to be exact, when the team posted a 198.025 on the road at Ohio State. They have gone on to surpass the 198 mark five times since then, including at the NCAA Championships where they posted a program record 198.250.
But as of February 4, 2022, that program record no longer stands. On the road in a tri meet against Alaska and Rutgers, Michigan posted an astronomical 198.525. Nevermind being the highest score in the nation so far this season—it’s the sixth highest score in NCAA history and the highest score any team has posted since 2004.
It was a magical day from start to finish; the kind of meet that has you shaking your head in awe. It started in the first rotation when senior Natalie Wojcik’s grip broke mid bar routine. Due to it being a safety concern, Wojcik was able to grab an extra pair of grips from her bag and start her routine again. Completely unshaken, Wojcik put up a 9.925. That was just the beginning of what would become a record day for Wojcik, tying Elise Ray, Beth Wymer and Sarah Cain for Michigan’s All-Around program record with a 39.825.
In the third rotation Gabby Wilson dazzled the crowd with her sky high tumbling and intricate dance. Wilson hadn’t gone below 9.95 the entire season, so earning that perfect 10 was only a matter of time. When she hit her ending pose, Wilson could feel the excitement from her team.
“After the routine was over, I honestly wasn’t sure whether or not it was a 10, but my teammates were so excited that it made me think that it was a possibility,” Wilson said. “Seeing that score come up, I just felt so happy. Gymnastics always feels like it’s about chasing perfection and we drill routines day in and day out for just one moment. It was amazing that I was able to attain it.”
As her team headed over to the vault, the final event for the day, Plocki cracked a joke: “How many vaults do we want to stick today?” The team responded “All of them!”
“I said alright you guys, I’m just kidding,” Plocki said. “Then I got serious and said ‘I don’t want to go over there and have you guys thinking about sticking vaults. We have to be very intentional and stay focused, think about the big blocks, the tight form, and that will be what leads us to have some good landings.’”
Plocki may have been kidding, but her team wasn’t. Just a few minutes after Wilson’s 10 on floor, sophomore Reyna Guggino kicked off the vault rotation by nailing her Yurchenko 1.5 in the lead off spot. The judges threw up a 10, making Guggino only the second gymnast in NCAA history to score a 10 in the lead off spot.
“I mean, to be the first one to go in the lineup and get a 10 is just crazy,” Guggino said. “Bev came running down the vault runway and was like, ‘You got a 10!’ And I was so confused. Then Naomi Morrison came up to me and grabbed me and said, ‘Rey, you got a 10! You actually got a 10!’ All the emotion came rushing to me and I was crying like a baby!”
The sticks became contagious, as did the big scores. Wojcik followed Guggino with her third career 10 on vault. Then came Abby Heiskell, who is no stranger to sticking a technically beautiful vault, and was finally awarded the 10 many have felt she deserved a long time ago. Morrison followed with another stick for her third score of 9.975 this season and Wilson closed out the rotation with one of the most explosive vaults being done in the nation for a 9.9. When all was said and done, the Wolverines put up a 49.8750; a program record and the second highest score on vault in NCAA history.
» FOUR perfect 10s
» Sixth-highest score in NCAA history
» Program record on vault
— Michigan Athletics 〽️ (@UMichAthletics) February 5, 2022
For Guggino, earning a 10 was sweet, but sharing the moment with her teammates was sweeter.
“Celebrating my 10 was even more crazy when Natalie and Abby got two more 10’s right after me,” Guggino said. “It honestly made the moment more special because my successes make me happy, yes, but the success of the team and my teammates just means so much more.”
The real kicker of Michigan’s record breaking competition is the fact that it wasn’t even their best performance. They had three falls on three different events and were also resting one of their All-Around stars, Sierra Brooks, on bars and floor. For Plocki, the biggest takeaways from the meet was that her team can hit under pressure and pull out a top notch performance while resting some of their highest scoring athletes.
The Wolverines have a small team compared to other NCAA teams; only 13 gymnasts on the roster, with five All-Around competitors in Wojcik, Wilson, Heiskell, Morrison and Brooks. Some fans of the sport have been characterizing Michigan’s small roster and the decision to utilize five gymnasts in the All-Around as a depth problem, but so far, the team has proven otherwise. For Plocki it’s about managing her talent the right way—knowing when to pull back the reins and rest some athletes; allowing others to step in.
“33 years and I don’t feel we’ve ever been in a situation we are right now where we can strategically pull people out of lineups,” Plocki said. “For Michigan State we rested two people on each event, at Rutgers we rested one person, this weekend we will be resting Gabby Wilson and Naomi Morrison [on multiple events]… So I’m resting a decent chunk of our lineup. We may have a smaller number than a lot of teams across the country but the athletes we have are doing well on all four events.”
Michigan is not a team composed of World Champions, Olympians, or even Elite gymnasts. The program has recruited some of the best Level 10 gymnasts in the country. The Wolverines roster has a combined 33 J.O. National titles and numerous Nastia Cup qualifiers, in addition to some incredibly hard working and driven athletes who want to reach their full potential.
Plocki applauded the sophomore class (Morrison, Guggino, and Jenna Mulligan) for upping their game this season. They’ve become more confident, more consistent, and are contributing on multiple events each week.
“For that whole class there was really a determination after last year,” Plocki said. “They were hungry, they loved being a part of that national championship, but they wanted to be a bigger part of it. Those guys worked their butts off last summer and really elevated themselves.”
Plocki also cited freshman Jacey Vore who made her lineup debut on bars at Minnesota when Natalie Wojcik stepped out of the bar lineup at the last minute. Vore went up in the anchor spot and nailed her routine for a 9.9. She hasn’t missed a beat since.
“She’s just got so much joy,” Plocki said. “I love the positive energy she has and she’s proven to be a meet baby; she’s confident and consistent when she gets out there. She had a slower start coming in with an Achilles injury but she’s doing a great job this year. She’s getting her feet wet, getting a lot of experience, and is going to be a huge part of this program.”
So how does a team performing at this level maintain their performance—mentally and physically—through the rest of the reason?
“We just have to keep it fun,” Plocki said. “I have talked a lot about the fact that we are not using the word expectation. I have no expectations for these ladies. I have confidence, I believe in them, and I know what they’re capable of doing… I told them that all I want them to do is put out on the competition floor the same thing I see from them in the gym everyday. And if they do that, regardless of the result, I’ll be proud of them. Do I believe that we’re capable of winning another NCAA title? Absolutely I do! But do I have the belief that anything less is going to be disappointing? No.”
The expectations are off. The excitement is high. And the Michigan Wolverines are crushing it—and enjoying every moment.
Photos by Lloyd Smith for Inside Gymnastics
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