Not to be outdone, Michigan conducted its own preseason exhibition last weekend—an actual exhibition meet against an actual opponent in EMU. It was, in many ways, a less-representative showing than the previews we’ve seen from Utah or LSU because two rather important gymnasts were missing in Karas and Zaziski (neither for what appear to be serious or long-term reasons), but it did still provide us with a solid-enough sense of how Michigan shapes up for 2017.
Michigan drew the beam short straw again last year, missing nationals after an implosion at what otherwise would have been a pleasure cruise of a regional. Ultimately, the 2016 Wolverines equaled the result of that wildly depleted 2012 side (when it was a miracle they finished as high as 13th), a placement unbecoming of a team that could have made Super Six.
Based on the roster and the number of essential routines returning from last year in Artz, Chiarelli, Karas, and Brown, there’s every reason to expect 2017 to go quite similarly to 2016 (except, they’ll hope, without the ending part). The slate of most likely competition routines is quite similar, though a critical difference may be an increased supply of options as more routines have come into the team than were lost. That should allow Michigan better opportunities to rest major contributors or drop inconsistent routines. Continue reading Michigan 2017→
2016 Outlook It’s time for Michigan to make it back to Super Six. I’m putting it out there. It’s been too long. The Wolverines got very close last season, much closer than I expected they would, and this year’s team is at least equivalent to that team if not slightly stronger (perhaps a bit better on beam and a bit weaker on bars to even out?). They have the AA leaders along with the 9.9 specialist contributors to make a run at it, as long as they don’t have another repeat of the viral meningitis breakdown that thwarted their exhibition meet this month. Develop some kind of advanced quarantine training facility, and this is a Super Six team. No question. The serious worry is the size of the team, as we learned from the exhibition. Michigan does have six strong options on every event—what at this point look like more complete lineups than the likes of Stanford and UCLA—but the well of backups is far from replete. They will be perpetually on the cusp of destruction should a vital injury befall them.
Key Competitor Olivia Karas. Because the Wolverines have a relatively small contingent of contributors, they will once again be reliant on that same group of top AAers and three-eventers to provide the large majority of 9.9s. The significant change to the roster from last season is the loss of Sachi Sugiyama, and success in 2016 will largely hinge on Karas’s ability to fill the Sugiyama role in each lineup and be a major scoring leader on at least three events. She was a star in JO and is very capable of being a star in NCAA, but unlike many freshmen she will not be given the leeway to start slowly or hide behind that flimsy “acclimating to college” excuse for underperforming. The team needs her to be great from week one.
Michigan’s best asset on vault this year will be 10.0 start values. The team was fine (though not fantastic) on vault last season, but over the summer and fall, they have worked to develop a nearly complete lineup of viable, difficult vaults with full SVs. In many ways, Michigan will be the test case for whether it really is advisable to throw out new, more difficult vaults in an effort to get that couple-tenth advantage. It will be fun to compare Michigan’s results pushing the 10.0 vaults to some of the teams that opt to play it safer and maintain a predominately yfull lineup. Which strategy works better? Are teams rewarded for playing up the difficulty now, or will execution deductions on potentially less comfortable vaults negate any SV advantage, rendering fulls the better choice? If you’re a respectable dork, you’re really excited to find out the answer to these questions.
Karas has been vaulting a high and impressive 1.5 for a while now, and Chiarelli is very capable of bumping up the difficulty on her vault without enduring much of an execution knock because of obvious Brestyan’s reasons. I’d expect those two to lead the scoring, along with Sheppard when she is able to return from yet another leg injury. Sheppard is also capable of pushing the difficulty, but leg injuries, comebacks, and all that. Just get her into the lineup doing whatever. Casanova has always been pecking around the edge of the vault lineup, but stepping back up to a 1.5 herself should tip the balance in her favor and get her into that six. She (mostly) stuck her 1.5 in the exhibition, so that’s an encouraging sign.
But that’s not all! Perhaps most interestingly, Artz has learned a front handspring, handspring front pike vault that also starts from a 10 and should be a delight to watch progress this season. This is the one that makes me a little nervous, but I don’t care because I love that vault so much. Even if Sheppard stays with the full, it’s a fantastic full that will still be one of the best scores on the team, and these five should give Michigan a healthy start toward a great vault total. It’s a potentially risky strategy by going for so many challenging landings in one lineup, but it’s also an exciting one. In the final spot, I like Emma McLean since she showed a pretty powerful full in JO, but Brianna Brown did well last season with 9.800-9.850 vaults, so she’ll be another realistic option, especially until Sheppard is ready. There aren’t many choices after that, which is somewhat unnerving, but if they can get through this year using a combination of those seven without having to eat a low score from a backup, this can be a true 49.3-49.4 lineup.
I have a few more questions about the condition of things on bars this season. This is still a good bars team and probably a top-8 bars team, but they’ll miss Sachi Sugiyama the most on this event because there isn’t an obvious replacement waiting to take over for a 9.875-9.900. While there are enough options to round out a comfortable lineup, it’s not necessarily a strength for many of them and 9.9s may be at a premium. Brown will be essential once again as the gymnast most likely to get those 9.9s with her superior amplitude and precision through handstands. She’s the true bars specialist on this team, who provides the added bonus of being solid in the AA. Artz should also pop into the 9.9s from time to time, but the rest of the options look more likely to be 9.825-style contributors. Because of the two leaders, it’s a lineup that still should be able get 49.300, if finding it a bit more difficult to get those 49.4s from last season without a final high-scoring piece. I’m interested to see Lauren Marinez come into the lineup here, but more interested in her beam so we’ll get to her in a second. Casanova and Williams have also been stalwarts in this lineup for 9.800-9.850, so I’d also pick them to return; Sheppard has grown into a bars worker with humongous amplitude, though form breaks and a slightly terrifying dismount will always keep her out of the biggest scores; and Christopherson competed a couple times last season for 9.8s. The coaching staff will be able to play with pieces and see if they can induce another Beilstein/Sheppard transformation from someone. As for the freshmen, both can and will contribute bars routines this year, though it’s not the preferred event for either. Karas has added a DLO dismount to make her composition more competitive, but there still are form breaks throughout the routine. Aside from the locks, Brown and Artz, it feels like an any-of-the-above selection right now. All of these options can probably score similarly, but one of them needs to turn into a new 9.9 this year to make this an asset event.
Beam hasn’t always been a lovely ride for Michigan, and by that I mean you already died of a heart attack about three years ago. But lately Michigan has suddenly been like, “Guess who’s the most consistent beam team in the NCAA, because it’s us. So eat that.” The Wolverines didn’t score below 49 on beam at any time last year, which is insane and cause for optimism in 2016 as all of the most significant contributors return, along with some exciting new prospects. In the past, a lack of consistently huge scores has kept the lineup closer to 49.2s than Oklahoma/UCLA-style 49.5s (which totally acceptable because it’s beam and you’d take a 49.2 any day), but the additions of Karas and Marinez should boost expectations. Karas is a secure beam worker with excellent amplitude on her acro elements, and Marinez has always been completely lovely on beam. If Marinez has the confidence and consistency, she should be a majorly impressive beamer for 9.9s.
Those two will join Artz, Brown, and Chiarelli, who were the solid core of the lineup last season and all popped into the 9.9s at one time or another. Artz is the beam leader and most likely 9.9, with the added bonus that she didn’t fall once last season, and Chiarelli has done so well to become a beamer in NCAA after being distinctly not one in elite. That’s a pretty impressive foundation that will be able to compete with most other teams. For the final spot, both Casanova and Williams will be options as both were vital (and consistent) for 9.825-9.850 last year. The lineup could be any of these seven depending on who’s able to hit, and the team should feel comfortable with any of them competing. Michigan was 6th on beam last year (2nd by beam average), and I see no reason why that can’t at least continue if not improve this year if Karas and Marinez deliver the way I think they can.
Sugiyama and Parker were both essential to the floor lineup last season with occasional 9.9s (more than occasional for Sugiyama), so Michigan has some work to do to maintain the same level on floor. I expect the two freshmen to pop right into those open slots, leaving the rest of the lineup intact. The good news is that both freshmen excel on floor. Karas has impressive power in a double arabian and tumbles quite comfortably, and McLean has very high and clean D-level tumbling that should be able to minimize deductions if not necessarily stand out as a wow routine.
Certainly, expect Artz and Chiarelli return to their spots at the end of the lineup. Artz is one of the consistently best-scoring floor workers with perhaps the least floppity-legged-low-chest piked full-in across all of NCAA. She led the floor rankings for a good chunk of last season. Chiarelli has just been throwing out E passes like candy all preseason because that’s what you do when you’re Talia Chiarelli, and both should continue their 9.9ing ways in 2016. The remaining two spots will be down to Brown, Casanova, and Williams, all of whom are more likely to go 9.8 than 9.9 but can give the lineup perfectly acceptable opening routines. With potential 9.9s from Artz, Chiarelli, and Karas and supporting 9.8+ scores from McLean, Brown, and Casanova/Williams, this lineup should be able to reach into the 49.4s again this year.