Michigan’s 2012 season was the reason analgesic phrases like “rebuilding year” were invented. The team was so depleted that it often struggled to scrape together six routines worthy of competition on each event. It’s a credit to the Wolverines that they were able to get as close to Nationals as they did, falling just .125 behind Oregon State for the second spot out of the Auburn Regional. Looking at the rosters for those two teams this year, I would expect the results to flip in a rematch (January 4th).
The Wolverines lose no seniors from last year and gain Natalie Beilstein returning from injury as well as freshmen Morgan Smith, Briley Casanova, Austin Sheppard, and Lindsay Williams. That group of five is capable of bringing in probably ten 9.800+ routines that the team did without last season. The relief of having a backup of a 9.800 instead of a backup of crossed fingers and a cloud of smoke will help the team gain a rhythm much earlier.
That is not to say that this season will be a smooth ride or that Michigan is necessarily a shoo-in for a Nationals spot. There are too many holes that need to be filled by new, untested, or inconsistent gymnasts to be confident that the old Michigan will be back. The beam rotation in particular needs to be gutted and recast. What is certain is that the team will have the luxury of numbers that it did not have last year. Now, those numbers have to become routines.
Vault should be a strong event for the Wolverines. At the recent exhibition, it was certainly the closest to being ready. Joanna Sampson, Sachi Sugiyama, and Katie Zurales led the team last year with regular ventures up to 9.875-9.900, and I expect the same from them this season. The bonuses should be the return of Beilstein, who is also good for a 9.900, and the introduction of Smith, who had a nice DTY as an elite and should be a scoring leader in NCAA.
Those five are enough to put together a nationally competitive vault rotation that can outscore several of the teams ranked above them. There is potential for value in the sixth spot as well from Casanova, who had a Y1.5 as an elite but should do the full in NCAA, Sheppard, who looked strong in the exhibition, Reema Zakharia, who has a solid handspring pike 1/2, and Stephanie Colbert, who was reliable for 9.775-9.800 last year. If healthy and in form, expect 49.300 to be the norm with potential to go higher.
After the Botterman/Sexton/Wilson triumvirate graduated, there was always going to be a hole on bars. Well, more of a crater last season. Brittnee Martinez is a help, but she is better than the 9.845 RQS she recorded last year and needs to score regularly higher than that to be valuable in the late lineup.
Other than Martinez, there are multiple 9.800-9.850 routines that should see action: Zurales, Sugiyama, Shelby Gies, and potentially Annette Miele. All, however, have breaks that will keep them from scoring much higher than that. Joanna Sampson can go if necessary, but mostly the team needs to find some new 9.9s. Williams competed in the exhibition, but I’m not sold. Smith and Casanova have both been fine on bars in the past, but there is necessary cleaning to be done to make those the late-lineup routines they need to be.
Oh, beam. I fear for Michigan on beam. So many times last season people who shouldn’t have been beaming were shoved into a beam position, which resulted in a bevy of errors from the likes of Miele and Sugiyama. Get them out of there. Katie Zurales can stay, and Gies, Sampson, and Martinez should, in theory, be usable for their experience. In practice, however, both Sampson and Martinez fell in the exhibition. This is terrifying already.
Morgan Smith seems to be the type who can solidly hit her acro. Her elite beam never stood out to me as anything special, but solid is exactly what this team needs. Casanova can certainly put together an NCAA set, but that consistency is a worry. Work to be done here. Work to be done.
Floor is the other event where the return of Beilstein and her usual 9.900 will be the team’s everything. I’m a little concerned about her composition because she’s not performing the heathen double Arabian that took her Achilles away (at least not yet) and instead is opting for twisting skills that are not as strong. We’ll see.
Zakharia should be there with a double front that is not that scary, and I quite enjoy Sampson’s DLO as well. Sugiyama and Colbert can be early-lineup 9.800s, and Zurales maybe (maybe) can also get to the lineup. I’ve always thought Gies would be nice on floor, but I question the consistency. Like bars, I expect Smith and Casanova to see a lot of time here, but I’m not ready to proclaim them the savior 9.9s that the team needs until we, you know, actually see something from them.
Even though a lot about Michigan remains to be judged, particularly because we have not seen even one element of NCAA gymnastics from either Smith or Casanova, I believe that this team should be en route to Nationals at the end of the season. Compared to the teams I expect Michigan to be competing with (Arkansas, Oregon State, and the like), this team has more potential 9.9s than either.
My biggest concern for the Wolverines right now is that beam will remain so questionable that they will end up counting falls that make them seem less talented than they are or that make them miss Nationals. This isn’t a team like UCLA that can count two falls a week and still be #6. They will need to squeeze every tenth out of each apparatus. If all goes to plan, the #10 preseason ranking might even be a bit soft as an estimate, but everything needs to go to plan first.