Trip to NCAAs routine for Michigan gymnastics team

Angelique S. Chengelis
The Detroit News

There is a steadiness and resilience to the Michigan women's gymnastics team that belies the youth-laden complexion of the roster.

Even with a freshman class double the size of the senior, the sixth-ranked Wolverines (25-3), winners of the Big Ten regular and postseason titles, have qualified for yet another NCAA championship. It is their 22nd appearance, having made 21 of the last 23 events.

Michigan, which ranked No. 10 last season, will compete in the first semifinal today at the Fort Worth (Texas) Convention Center against Florida, UCLA, Utah, Georgia and Stanford. The top three finishers move on to the Super Six on Saturday for a chance at the national title. The Wolverines have reached the Super Six 10 times, most recently in 2011.

Bev Plocki, this season's Big Ten coach of the year, said the Wolverines are confident and believe in what they've done this season and how they've prepared for the NCAA championships.

"I think one of the strengths of this team is that they really support each other, they believe in each other, they trust each other, and that is huge going into big competitions," Plocki said in a recent interview. "Nobody panics if there's a little mistake. We pick up and move on and continue to keep going, and that's been a strength of this team."

And then there are the seniors, who took hold of a team that features six freshmen, including Big Ten co-Freshman of the Year, Brianna Brown. Co-captains Annette Miele and Brooke Parker, a transfer from Alabama who is completing her two-year career at Michigan, and Sachi Sugiyama are the seniors who have helped unify the team.

Their leadership, Plocki said, is the foundation of the team. She said Sugiyama is as much a captain as Miele and Paker, and said her emergence has been vital.

"At this point last year, Sachi still saw herself as a lead-by-example person, but she still wasn't ready to say she was comfortable being the vocal, captain-type leader," Plocki said.

"But she transformed over the summer, and she's found her voice. They've all done a fabulous job (as captains).

Parker left Alabama after two seasons, saying she wasn't having the experience she anticipated. At Michigan, she has found a home, albeit for a short stay. She said her role as a leader emerged, but all the team members are on equal footing.

'This team has a lot of chemistry," Parker said.

"We don't have a large senior class, so (leadership) is pretty spread out between each class. It just shows the equality of the team. This team is based on an equal voice — there is no hierarchy."

Brown, the freshman, is a difference maker who finished third in the all-around and uneven bars at the NCAA Regional on April 4. Plocki laughs the biggest thing Brown must work on is molding her perfectionist approach to view things as a positive and not a negative.

"She is absolutely someone who will look at any situation and find everything that is possibly wrong with it," Plocki said with a laugh. "And yet, given that, she comes through and she gets it done. We're working on trying to get her to look at the positive aspects of things versus everything that could go wrong."

Plocki is taking a positive approach to Michigan's rotation in the semifinal, although it's not to her liking. The Wolverines' rotation is bars, beam, floor and vault and concludes with a bye. Plocki would rather open with a bye when judges' scoring typically is tighter and less forgiving.

That's the draw, though, and Plocki said the team must focus on being loose.

"We're in control of making sure we make enough of a statement with our performances and gymnastics that the judges will have that in their mind in terms of comparing to other teams," she said.

"I'm very confident if we compete with the confidence and sparkle, and the pizzazz we did at Big Tens and we have so many times this year, I think it will be good enough to get us to the Super Six."

With the solid leadership and the talented youth on her team, Plocki feels good about Michigan's chances this weekend. She said with so much parity in college gymnastics, any of the teams could advance to the Super Six, so why not Michigan?

"I feel like we have an opportunity, but we have to get there first," Plocki said. "We're going out there and concentrating on entertaining the audience and having that level of confidence."