March 2011 Archives

It was probably part naiveté but plenty of confidence that Bev Plocki, a graduate assistant coach at West Virginia, started to look for a coaching position in the sport she loved and competed -- gymnastics. After all, she wasn't looking for an assistant position; she was looking for the top job, a head coaching spot.

Letter after letter were mailed out and only two schools were interested in this young coach -- Wisconsin-Whitewater and Michigan. She never expected what would come next -- an offer from U-M.

Just a few years after competing as a student-athlete, Plocki now was heading a up a Big Ten program that finished dead last and winless in the conference. Now, she was the head coach and it was her job to turn a major Division I program into a winner.

The team won seven contests in her first season (1990) and 13 in 1991. In 1992 she led the team to its first Big Ten championship and a second-place finish in the NCAA Regional.

Once she got the team rolling, her next task was to help build the fan base and get a new facility for the budding program. She knew she had to cultivate fans and supporters. And she did that quite well.

She worked closely with the community, promoting her sport at every opportunity presented. She developed strong relationships with her supporters and the results were similar to her success she had with the team.

The fan base started to grow in the late 1990s. The team had to move many of its events out of the smaller Cliff Keen Arena over to Crisler Arena. In 2005, all Wolverine women's gymnastics meets were held in Crisler. Now, Michigan is annually one of the top 10 in NCAA attendance every year.

In 2002, the team moved into a brand new 22,000-square-foot, state-of-the-art practice facility. The Donald R. Shepherd Women's Gymnastics Training Center has 17,000 square feet of training area that is outfitted with the latest in gymnastics training equipment, including resi- and free-foam pits for each event. It was Shepherd's love for the sport and the relationship with the team that led to a $3.5 million gift that made it possible for this grand facility.

Turn the clock ahead to April 2011 and the Wolverine women gymnastics program has more Big Ten championships (19) than any other women's sport in the entire Big Ten.

Now, Plocki is the third winningest active coach at U-M. Only softball coach and 2011 Michigan Sports Hall of Fame inductee Carol Hutchins along with legendary ice hockey coach Red Berenson have won more contests.

Saturday night (April 2) at Crisler Arena, No. 9-ranked U-M will host the NCAA Regional Championships at 6 p.m. looking for a berth to the NCAA finals. This will be the team's 20th consecutive appearance in an NCAA Regional. Top seed and No. 4-ranked Stanford, third seed and No. 16 Ohio State, No. 21 Iowa State, No. 23 Minnesota and No. 24 Kent State round out the field. The top two teams in each of the six NCAA Regional Championships will advance to the NCAA Championships, to be held April 15-17 in Cleveland, Ohio.

In just three seasons, Plocki helped create Michigan as a perennial contender for the NCAA championship. If things go right for the Wolverines, they will be making their 18th NCAA finals appearance in the last 19 years.

There is no naiveté now with this veteran coach. Instead, it is the knowledge, hard work, the team's resolve and the love for the sport and the University of Michigan that have allowed her to flourish and make the Wolverines women gymnastics program an integral part of the great Michigan athletic and academic tradition.

One Loss Can Make the Future Bright

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Sunday morning (March 20) at Yost Ice Arena was a time to look ahead. The NCAA Ice Hockey Championship selection was taking place and televised live on ESPN2. You could hear the hoots and hollers from the locker room as the Wolverines were named to play Nebraska-Omaha in the West Regional in St. Louis this Friday at 4:30 p.m. CDT (5:30 EDT).

The same city to which head coach Red Berenson returned just a few weeks ago when the St. Louis Blues honored their great No. 7s before an NHL game. A city where Red helped make hockey a relevant major league sport. A city where Berenson was named NHL Coach of the Year in 1980.

But before this team and Red could look ahead, it was important to look back about 36 hours and take to heart what happened on the ice at Joe Louis Arena.

It was a game most Michigan fans probably thought the Michigan ice hockey team would like to forget. It was Friday night (March 18) and the Wolverines lost to Western Michigan in the semifinals of the Central Collegiate Hockey Association Tournament, 5-2.

Sure, everyone knew Michigan was going to make its 21st consecutive NCAA appearance, but this wasn't the hard-nosed, sense-of-urgency type of style the Wolverines display as they battle in tournament play.

Senior captain Carl Hagelin noted how the team felt embarrassed after the loss. Berenson even mentioned to the media during his availability after the ESPN show how the team had been "playing down" to the level of its competition in the last few weeks.

Instead of forgetting about this game and the last few weeks of the season, Hagelin thinks this loss might have been the wake-up call the Wolverines needed. On Saturday afternoon (March 19) just over 16 hours after the loss to WMU, U-M bounced back with inspired play from goalie Shawn Hunwick (a career -high 42 saves in a regulation game) and two goals in a 15-second time span by Chris Brown and Hagelin to lead Michigan to a 4-2 win over Notre Dame.

This rebound game is what the seniors on this team are keying on. Hagelin even mentioned this loss might have been "good for the team" since they had been on an eight-game winning streak despite not playing up to their potential.

Now, the captain from Sweden and the other seniors have to show the importance of each and every detail. One 30-second shift can mean the difference between advancing or going home in the NCAA Tournament.

"In this tournament, if you don't get that first goal it can be tough to come from behind," said Hagelin. "Air Force got that first goal against us a few years ago and then we scored the first goal against Bemidji."

His plan is to help U-M jump on the momentum from the opening faceoff just as a team would be battling during the last minute of closely contested contest. His belief is the team needs to play with that sense of urgency. Everyone needs to know the importance of each aspect their preparation and play on the ice means to the success of this U-M team.

"The way we played (on Friday night), we don't want to be like that," said Hagelin. "This is Michigan and everyone including ourselves expects more."

Yes, it is time to look ahead. Without looking back, the fortunes of this Michigan team might not be as bright as they are this week.

Go Blue!

The game will be shown live in HD on ESPN3.com.

Arena Renovation Puts U-M Women on the Road

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Through the years, when Michigan Stadium was renovated, the football team found itself somewhat displaced. In the past, spring football games were held on the practice field with no public invited, a game was moved to Saline High School, and practices that might have been held at the stadium were not allowed -- except for the Friday walk-through, that is.

Now, for the first time in recent history, the basketball teams are facing a similar issue. It first started with the basketball offices moving to temporary quarters in trailers in the arena parking lot. Now the women's basketball team finds itself unable to host any postseason games because of the renovations to the interior of Crisler Arena that, along with the new Basketball Player Development Center, will modernize Michigan's basketball facilities.

Instead of playing in the home confines of Crisler, the team will board a bus and play Eastern Michigan tomorrow night (Thursday, March 17) at the Convocation Center in Ypsilanti. Tipoff is 7 p.m. for the first-round game of the WNIT postseason tournament.

The coaching staff thinks about the renovation and the building. They understand by forgoing the home games and renovating Crisler now, the quicker the program can move ahead.

The players are a different story. They want to get it done now -- on the court.

This has been truly an up-and-down season for the Michigan women. And, like the men's team, these Wolverines were not expected to do well.

Despite the predictions and some setbacks along the way, U-M defeated four teams in the top 25 this season -- including a regular-sesason sweep of conference tournament champion Ohio State -- and was the No. 3 seed in the Big Ten Tournament after winning 10 league games. Again, like the men's team, they faced Illinois in the first round of the tournament in Indianapolis. Unfortunately, unlike the men's team, the women's team suffered a rough loss.

One game provided a different outcome for two teams so similar. A win provided one with the opportunity to celebrate a NCAA Tournament selection, while the loss left the women's team on the outside looking in during the ESPN Women's NCAA Tournament Selection Show Monday evening.

Tomorrow, these players will be focusing on the first game of the WNIT.

A strong run in the WNIT along with the renovation of Crisler Arena can go a long way in building this program and making this 2011 season the foundation for the future of the women's basketball program at Michigan.