You go into every season thinking that this is going to be the season. The one where some school emerges from nowhere (read: outside the SEC or Pac-12) and wins the big one: that coveted NCAA title.
And it may still be that season. Just not the school you might think.
Meet the University of Michigan, a school with a good — if not great — gymnastics M.O. The men’s program is awesome. They won the NCAA title in 2010 and have produced two of the past three men’s NCAA all-around champions in Chris Cameron (2010) and Sam Mikulak (2011).
Mikulak, now with an Olympic Games on his resume, continues to be the brightest spot in their program, along with sophomore stars Stacey Ervin and Adrian de los Angeles. Don’t know them yet? You will.
Individually, the women haven’t done too badly either. Michigan was the choice of 2000 U.S. champion and Olympic team bronze medalist Elise Ray, who was courted by every gymnastics school in the country. Ray won the NCAA all-around title in 2001. Kylee Botterman won it in 2011.
Let’s not forget Michigan is the state that gave women’s gymnastics one of the most successful and noteworthy figures of the past quad: John Geddert.
(Just kidding, Jordyn.)
Anyway, back to Michigan. Going into the fourth week of the NCAA season and following a whopping 197.35 against Illinois last week, they’re ranked numero uno, ahead of defending champions Alabama, perennial contenders Utah, UCLA, LSU and Florida, along with Georgia, Oklahoma, Stanford, Arkansas and everyone else who usually chases.
Why have they been so successful, so under the radar? Here are five reasons:
1. 2012 was not a great season for them. They were a depleted team. They had a lot of injuries and a team of something like 12 gymnasts.
2. They aren’t a school you think of as a contender to become the fifth ever to win the NCAA title. That’s reserved for Florida, Oklahoma, and — this year at least — LSU.
3. Strong upperclassmen. After a strong junior season, Katie Zurales has become one of the top gymnasts in the NCAA. Meanwhile, Natalie Beilstein is back from a leg injury that cut her 2012 season short.
4. Strong underclassmen. Michigan quietly inked freshman Briley Casanova, Morgan Smith and Austin Sheppard two years ago. Great move on the part of coach Bev Plocki, though none of the three have yet made an impact.
Casanova and Smith have competed at the U.S. Championships, where Casanova was reputed for her total-package qualities and Smith for big skills and great technique. Sheppard, the powerhouse of the trio, represented Hungary at the 2011 Worlds.
5. Versatility. The team is still only 14 deep this year, and they’ve produced the results they’ve produced without much contribution from the freshmen so far. The way I read that, they can only get better.
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