Michigan Prepares for Changing of the Guard as Freshmen Shine

After fighting through arguably the most difficult regional in the country and advancing to nationals by a margin of only half a tenth, things didn’t get any less tense for Michigan. In its national semifinal, it remained within a tenth of the lead through the first three rotations before ultimately coming up short against eventual runner-up LSU.

According to head coach Bev Plocki, the Wolverines were at home in the tense atmosphere.

“I just told them they needed to compete for each other and not pay attention to scores,” she said. “But I certainly knew how close it was, and I’m sure they did too. When we were at regionals, it was the same thing. Great teams thrive under this kind of competitive battle.”

The competitiveness of Michigan’s final meets was due in no small part to the new postseason format, which Plocki felt was “so much more exciting” than in previous years. She would like to see sessions at nationals determined by seeding rather than the regionals bracket—and little wonder, since Michigan had the fourth-highest score of semifinal day and could easily have advanced with a more even distribution of teams.

Freshman Natalie Wojcik felt that the team’s mutual trust was key in withstanding the pressure of its final meets of 2019.

“We definitely had a tough season, and we’ve overcome so much adversity,” she said. “So just leaning on each other and being such a strong team was really huge for us.”

The adversity has been considerable. Michigan began its preseason with the announcement of two medical retirements, including one regular contributor. Since then, the team has seen the sudden departure of an assistant coach, the controversial and short-lived hire of Rhonda Faehn in his stead and a barrage of injuries and other health issues ranging from an appendectomy to an Achilles tear.

“We’ve steadily climbed in spite of all the things that we’ve been through, and we have been able to have the next-man-up attitude and not let ourselves be woe-is-me when somebody gets hurt or something happens,” Plocki said.

Two remarkable results made the Wolverines’ near-miss on Friday a little sweeter. Michigan finished the season ranked No. 5, an eight-place jump from a 2018 season that ended at regionals, and freshman Wojcik became only the fifth Michigan gymnast ever to win an NCAA title with a 9.950 on beam.

Wojcik blushed and changed the subject to the team as a whole when asked about her incredible achievement, but Plocki had plenty to say.

“Oh my gosh,” Plocki said, shaking her head in awe. “Our future is very bright. This freshman class has been amazing, and we’ve got another great class coming in next year.”

Wojcik’s title wasn’t the only way that one of the greatest recruiting classes in recent history is making its mark on the program. At the national championships 13 of Michigan’s 24 routines were contributed by freshmen, so it was easy to see the meet as a changing of the guard as seniors Emma McLean and Olivia Karas donned the maize and blue for the final time.

And while Karas left her gymnastics career triumphantly, adding four more All-America honors to her extensive resume, McLean hit yet another of the obstacles the Wolverines couldn’t seem to escape in 2019 as she was injured during her last practice in Ann Arbor and spent nationals cheering for her teammates with one arm in a cast.

“My heart is just broken into itty-bitty pieces that Emma ended up getting hurt on her last day of practice before she got to come and compete,” Plocki said. “And who knows, that could have made a difference for us here. She is unbelievably strong, she has persevered through so much and she always finds a way to be strong and battle through it.”

Karas and McLean have been leaders throughout their college careers, but they have a special relationship with this year’s freshman class. That includes Wojcik, who describes the pair as her role models.

“Coming in, they just took in me and the rest of the freshmen as their own. We call Liv ‘Mom,’” she said, laughing.

“IThey have groomed others to step up and take their place in the leadership,” Plocki said. “They’re so proud of their ‘children.’”

Article by Rebecca Scally

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