Jan. 6, 2014
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The No. 7-ranked University of Michigan women's gymnastics team (0-0) opens its 39th season of varsity competition this Friday (Jan. 10), facing Iowa State (0-1) and Illinois State (0-1) in Ames, Iowa. The tri-meet will begin at 6:30 p.m. CST.
Michigan returns 10 letterwinners off of last year's squad that won a share of the inaugural Big Ten regular season championship and finished seventh at the NCAA Championships. The Wolverines are headlined by a five-member senior class, including Joanna Sampson, the reigning national champion on floor exercise and last year's Big Ten and NCAA Northeast Region Gymnast of the Year. She is one of three captains along with classmates Shelby Gies and Reema Zakharia. Natalie Beilstein was granted a fifth season of eligibility by the NCAA back in the spring and rounds out the senior class along with Teresa Arthur. Stephanie Colbert is also a senior, but was forced to retire from the sport due to a wrist injury that had she competed, would have posed a significant long-term injury risk. She instead joined the coaching staff as an undergraduate volunteer assistant coach.
Following the graduations of former gymnasts Katie Zurales and Brittnee Martinez -- and with Colbert's new role on the coaching staff -- Michigan returns two-thirds of its competition routines (16 of 24) from last year's run to the NCAA Championships, needing to replace two routines on each of the four apparatuses.
Joining the team are three newcomers: freshmen Nicole Artz (L10 gymnast from Champion Gymnastics USA in Holland, Mich.) and Talia Chiarelli (former member of the Canadian Women's National Team from Brestyan's Gymnastics in Burlington, Mass.), as well as junior Brooke Parker, who transferred in from the University of Alabama over the summer.
Aside from Colbert, the only change to the coaching staff was the return of Dave Kuzara, who is in his second stint on the U-M coaching staff after previously serving as an assistant for Bev Plocki from 1990 and 1992-93. He replaces Shannon Welker, who departed to take the head coaching job at Missouri.
Michigan went 31-5 in all competitions last season, its most wins in a season since 2005 (32). The Wolverines earned a share of the inaugural Big Ten regular season championship -- sharing with Minnesota -- giving the program 20 Big Ten championships. After finishing second at the official Big Ten meet, Michigan won the NCAA Morgantown Regional to advance to the NCAA Championships for the 20th time, where they finished seventh as a program, just one spot shy of qualifying for the Super Six.
The Wolverines come in at No. 7 in the 2014 GymInfo National Preseason Coaches' Poll, released on Dec. 12. Michigan was also picked to finish first in the Big Ten, as voted on by the conference's head coaches. Additionally, Joanna Sampson and Austin Sheppard were named to the Big Ten Women's Gymnasts to Watch list. Beginning next week and up until Feb. 24, the rankings will be determined by overall scoring average. [ National/Big Ten Release | GymInfo Poll ]
Michigan announced a five-member signing class back in November: Brianna Brown (West Chester, Ohio), Ilana Gordon (San Carlos, Calif.), Cailee Hills (Charlotte, N.C.), Mandy Klun (Westmont, Ill.) and Lauren Marinez (Orlando, Fla.). All five signed National Letters of Intent and will join Michigan in the fall. [ Release ]
Former gymnast Katie Zurales (2010-13) was one of four recent U-M student-athletes to be accepted to the University of Michigan Medical School. Last season, Zurales was national runner-up on balance beam and tied for third in the all-around with Joanna Sampson. She also received an NCAA postgraduate scholarship. [ Brandon's Blog ]
The Cyclones hosted No. 15 Penn State last Sunday (Jan. 5) in Ames, but lost to the Nittany Lions, 193.925-193.550. Junior Caitlin Brown won the all-around (38.900). The Cyclones are the first team outside the preseason GymInfo Top 25 rankings.
Series: Michigan is 15-0 all-time against Iowa State. The two teams met three times last season: at the Minnesota Quad on Jan. 26 (196.775-193.950), at the UCLA Quad (197.550-194.650) and in a dual meet at Crisler Center (196.825-195.125). The Cyclones are the top team receiving votes in the preseason national poll.
The Redbirds opened the season last Saturday (Jan. 4) with a 189.000-188.950 loss to Ball State in Normal, Ill. Junior Samantha King won event titles on balance beam (9.750) and floor exercise (9.850) and also finished first in the all-around (39.000).
Series: Michigan is 8-1 all-time against Illinois State. The two teams have not met since Feb. 9, 1997.
Q: Last year, the program got back to the levels it has come to expect -- winning championships, making NCAAs. How do you feel about this year's squad?
A: I think this team has a great deal of potential. We need to get out there and compete and see where we're at with some of our new people. I definitely think our depth is better than it was last year and last year, it was good. We just have to be smart in terms of the things we're doing and the usage of our lineups.
Q: You've mentioned repeatedly throughout the fall that one thing this team has is depth, about being seven, eight or even nine deep on some events. Knowing that spots are up for grabs all over the place, what have the practices been like?
A: They've been pretty good. I was very pleased with what I saw at today's practice. We gave the team quite a bit of time off for the holidays. We've got two practices left (Tuesday and Wednesday) before the weekend. The first couple after the break, we were getting the cobwebs out, but today, we looked really sharp. Hopefully, we'll be exactly where we need to be when it comes time to compete on Friday.
Q: The gymnast with arguably the biggest breakout last year was Joanna Sampson. She had a big year. What do you expect to see from her in this, her senior season?
A: More of the same. We don't want her to change anything that she did last year. The risk that goes with that is that she puts too much pressure on herself and tries to do too much. I think the biggest and best thing she can do is relax, enjoy it and do her thing. She's already proven that she's good enough.
Q: And one of the gymnasts who you certainly feel has a lot of potential to do the same is Austin Sheppard. We didn't see her a ton last year, but she figures to take on more of an active role in several events this season. What has she shown you and what is she capable of doing for this team?
A: Her gymnastics is big, if I had to sum it up in one word. Her skill level is so high. She's a very powerful, dynamic athlete to watch. She's still young, though, so for her, it's a matter of having confidence and maturity when she competes. Her vault has always been incredible and it's even better now because she is in great shape. Her uneven bars routine is out of this world and her balance beam and floor exercise routines have the potential to be fantastic, too. We have to continue to build her confidence and get her exposure into lineups to see how she does.
Q: Talk about the first half of this season. Five of the team's first seven meets are away from Crisler Center. You'll find out a lot about your team pretty quick here.
A: This is the first year that we have to follow a conference schedule. The Big Ten laid out what our schedule was going to be and we had four or five dates outside that to do our own thing. It is what it is. It'll be difficult to go on the road, but I think we have a pretty strong team mentally. There's no reason to think they won't adapt well.
LAST TIME OUT
Michigan held its annual exhibition contest back on Dec. 8 at Crisler Center, defeating Central Michigan, 196.550-193.100. Joanna Sampson won the all-around (39.475) and three event titles: vault (9.925), uneven bars (9.900) and floor exercise (9.900 - tie). [ Recap | Photo Gallery | Highlights ]
Friday, Jan. 17 -- at North Carolina State, vs. North Carolina, vs. Towson (Raleigh, N.C.), 7 p.m.
OTHER RELATED LINKS
The All-Around (Tuesday)
Contact: Brad Rudner (734) 763-4423