Wolverine Watch

By Ashlee Buhler for Inside Gymnastics

Unfinished business. That has been the motto for the Michigan women’s gymnastics team in a season that began with a lot of uncertainty and presented obstacle after obstacle as it unfolded. It could have been an opportunity to make excuses or surrender to the circumstances, but for the Michigan Wolverines, the desire to prevail as a national title contender was far too great. 

March 7, 2021 was a day for the history books. The Wolverines not only broke a program record, but it was the first time they eclipsed the 198 mark; joining an exclusive club that only a handful of teams in the country are a part of. It was a complete team effort from start to finish that lead the Wolverines to that historic 198. 025. 

“Finally putting together all four events in the same meet was very exciting,” said Bev Plocki, head coach for Michigan for the last 32 seasons. “Starting on beam and having an incredible rotation, I think just started everything out on a great note and once we knew we had beam behind us they were just having fun and the energy was high.”

Bring it on! Watch all of the beam routines from Michigan’s stellar, record-breaking performance. The team score of 49.500 ties for third all-time in program history!

Junior Natalie Wojcik has been a big part of Michigan’s success in the last three seasons and put a bow on their record-breaking performance. Wojcik needed a 9.925 on bars to push the team score over 198. She came through with a 9.975; a near flawless performance from an athlete who has already achieved perfection with a 10 on beam this season. 

“I’m thrilled with Natalie,” Plocki said. “She’s the entire package; she’s a great person, great student, and obviously a great athlete. Her consistency is unbelievably impressive. Every once in a while, it’s like, ‘Can you just make a mistake, so we know you’re still human?’ We get a giggle out of it and it kind of takes the pressure off.”

However, Plocki recognizes that no one athlete is solely responsible for a team’s success. The talent on her team has no limits. On that historic day, it was sophomore Sierra Brooks who took the All-Around title with a performance that tied her career best 39.650. Fellow sophomore Gabby Wilson, who is competing in the All-Around for the first time in her college career, took home two individual titles with a 9.925 on vault and floor. The Wolverines had impressive performances from their freshmen as well, with Naomi Morrison posting a career high 9.925 on vault and Carly Bauman matching that score on beam. 

The performance was enough to catapult Michigan to No. 4 in the national rankings, with a real shot at qualifying to the four-team NCAA final and challenging for their first national title in program history. 

“I think the best is still yet ahead of us,” Plocki said. “Now we know that we’re capable of doing that. I feel like we earned the scores that we got with our gymnastics and I am really anxious to get on the floor in a head-to-head competition with some of the other top teams in the country.” 

Plocki said it has been difficult to gauge where her team stacks up to the competition due to being confined to in-conference meets only during the regular season. It is just one of many hurdles that has come her teams way due to the COVID-19 Pandemic.

Aside from an unorthodox preseason due to statewide restrictions, Michigan has had to swiftly reschedule several meets this season—whether it be due to an opponent cancellation or as a result of the department-wide pause within Michigan Athletics that left the team out of competition for two weeks at the beginning of the season.  It was during this time that Plocki realized just how dedicated her team is to achieve their goals. 

“This is a really special group of young women,” Plocki said. “They’ve taught me a lot this season. I realize how big the sacrifice is for them to essentially be giving up any social life. They’re 19 and 20, and in the peak of their lives. Social life is what college is all about. I have come to fully appreciate the sacrifices they are making to be able to stay COVID-free and participating.”

Plocki credited the team’s bond and ability to lean on each other when times get tough as a big reason for their success this season. Gabby Wilson echoed those sentiments. 

“College gymnastics has always been about leaning on your teammates and coaches, but this year has been the epitome of it,” Wilson said. “The fact that we’re all making sacrifices for a common goal is motivating and our collective success just makes it all worth it.”

Looking for the positives in every situation has also been a key component to the Wolverine’s ability to overcome challenges. Their biggest source of inspiration is Chip Hills, the father of former Michigan gymnast Cailee Hills, who passed away from pancreatic cancer in 2015. 

“One of his biggest things that he taught us is finding three good things every day,” Plocki said. “I said to the team very early on and several time since then that we can chose to feel sorry for ourselves and everything that we’re giving up, or we can find the things we are grateful for like being able to come together as a team and have gymnastics meets that we can compete in.”

“It’s how you choose to look at things and we have made a conscious effort to try and look for the things we’re grateful for because a lot of people who are going through this don’t have those same things to look forward to every day.”

Despite dominating the Big 10 Conference for decades and quietly climbing to the top of the national rankings over the years, the prestigious national title has eluded the Wolverines—something they would like to change this year. Plocki feels they are on the right trajectory, but first comes the Big 10 Championships where Michigan will look to claim its sixth consecutive title, and its 25th in program history. 

“Don’t count us out,” Plocki said. “The plan that we’ve been working with is obviously working, so I would say we stick with the plan and don’t make any major changes. Right now, the physical part of it is ready to go. From here on out it’s all about the mental and emotional part of our gymnastics that we need to keep fresh. We want to make sure our kids are feeling healthy, excited, and motivated.” 

Photo credit: University of Michigan Photography

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