Unit Eleven and the Magnificent Seven

March 29, 2012

By Brad Rudner

In the 23 years that Bev Plocki has coached women's gymnastics at Michigan, she can't quite remember a season like this one.

There have been seasons marred by injuries. There have been seasons with smaller-than-usual teams, and there have been teams with more inexperience than experience. But until this season, never had all three things happened at once.

Michigan entered the 2012 season without a single senior on its roster, when all other Big Ten teams had at least two each. Its roster was also small in numbers, featuring only 11 gymnasts. The average Big Ten team has 14 gymnasts.

Adding to adversity were injuries. In the second meet of the season on Jan. 21 at Minnesota, junior Natalie Beilstein, a two-time NCAA All-American and former Big Ten champion, ruptured her Achilles during the first pass of her floor routine, a devastating injury that put her on the shelf for the remainder of the season. Teresa Arthur, who was performing an exhibition on floor after Beilstein, suffered an ankle injury that put her in a walking boot for weeks.

The next week against Illinois, Beilstein's replacement on floor, sophomore Kristin Nagle, tore a ligament in her knee in what was her first-ever collegiate routine, another season-ender. Brittnee Martinez, another former NCAA All-American, became the fourth injured Wolverine a little more than a month later when she sprained an ankle upon sticking her vault landing.

The first day back at practice following Martinez's injury in early March, the team was getting treatment prior to a practice when an idea for a team nickname sprung. Seeing as how the team was down to just seven healthy gymnasts, sophomore Reema Zakharia pitched the idea of calling themselves the Magnificent Seven.

If you're trying to remember where you've heard that nickname before, think back to the 1996 Olympics. The U.S. Olympic Women's Gymnastics team entered the games as an underdog, with many picking Russia to win the gold, something it had done in nearly every Olympic Games since the early 1950s. Gymnasts like Shannon Miller, Dominique Moceanu and Dominique Dawes highlighted the team, but it was Kerri Strug who provided one of the most inspirational and gutsy performances in Olympics history after sticking a vault on a sprained ankle.

Those seven women came together, and against steep odds, won the gold medal in the team competition, something that hadn't happened before in this country's history. These current U-M gymnasts were between three and five years old at the time of the original Magnificent Seven.

"I said, 'Hey guys, we can do some great things with seven people,'" Zakharia said. "'How about those Magnificent Seven? They went out there and won gold, made history. We can be the Magnificent Seven, too.' I thought that put it into perspective. Even with a small number of people, you can still accomplish great things."

"It puts a smile on our faces every day if someone says it," sophomore Joanna Sampson said. "It's something to remember. They did a really great job, and we know we can, too."

Sampson and Zakharia both agreed that the Magnificent Seven was a catchy name, but they were both adamant in wanting to include everyone, even the gymnasts that couldn't compete. That's where Unit 11 comes in.

Last summer, as they do almost every year, the team wanted to come up with a nickname or motto, something that could be adopted for the whole season. They knew they were small in numbers, but they needed something that described just how devoted and dedicated they were. They settled on Unit 11, the "prime" team, as Zakharia called it.

"The word 'unit' refers to one team, one unit working together and staying strong through everything no matter what was thrown at us," junior Katie Zurales explains. "And there are 11 of us. Unit 11."

"This team has gone to battle together all year long," Plocki added. "All they have is each other. It's been something that has made them come together, act as a team, and in some cases, make self-sacrifices for the team. They've really bonded and grown closer."

Compare the lineup that Michigan fielded at last year's NCAA Super Six to the one it had at the Big Ten Championships last weekend, and you'll see just how fast things can change in one year. After the graduation of five seniors, the Wolverines came into 2012 knowing that they would need to replace 13 routines: four each from Kylee Botterman and Sarah Curtis, three from Jordan Sexton, and one each from Kari Pearce and Trish Wilson. That number grows to 16 if you count this season's injuries to Beilstein and Martinez, meaning Michigan has had to replace three-quarters of its lineup from where it was a year ago.

"At the start of the season, we knew what our lineups were going to be," Sampson said. "The injuries forced us to change it up. Everyone has stepped up in ways we weren't expecting."

The night before the Big Ten Championships, Zurales and the other captains -- Arthur and sophomore Shelby Gies -- huddled the team together. As one of the more experienced gymnasts on the roster, Zurales decided against giving a grand pep talk. Instead, she chose to let someone else do the talking, something she heard herself on the same night two years ago before her first Big Ten Championships.

She played a recording with a voice most Michigan fans would be able to recognize. It was none other than legendary Michigan football coach Bo Schembechler, and his famous "The Team" speech.

"A couple people were tearing up," Sampson said. "Listening to that, it was very inspiring. I got goose bumps."

"It's not about any one individual," Zurales said. "We're all working together as one team, and no matter what happens, no matter who hits and who doesn't, we all have each other's backs. Bo's speech captures that, and that's what we've been about all season."

Unit 11 walked into the Big Ten Championships the next day brandishing t-shirts that boldly depicted the nickname in the school's Maize and Blue colors. There was also a message: "Play Hard. Stay Strong. Never Give Up."

When the injuries began to mount, these U-M gymnasts were forced to adapt, and take on additional roles that they were not used to. Exhibit A is sophomore Stephanie Colbert.

After competing solely on vault and floor during her first year-and-a-half in Ann Arbor, the team looked to Colbert to serve as Martinez's replacement on uneven bars and balance beam during the month of March. She completed her first-ever beam routine in the March 9 meet against Georgia (a not-too-shabby 9.725), but her bigger accomplishment came at Big Tens.

After leading the team off on vault -- another first -- assistant coach Scott Sherman came over to Colbert and told her she was going to compete on uneven bars no matter what. She hadn't performed an uneven bars routine since her senior year of club gymnastics two years ago. In case of a tie at the championships, the sixth score is counted on all four events.

Colbert actually knew this, but she still felt nervous. She was also excited.

"I had been working on bars really hard all year, and I felt like I was ready to complete the routine," she said. "That routine wasn't just for me. It was for the team."

The pressure was on. Michigan held its session lead after a dynamic rotation vault, but Illinois was still within striking distance. Colbert was the sixth gymnast to go in the rotation, meaning she would have to watch her five teammates go before her. If there was a fall or slip-up, that pressure would only increase.

After Sampson scored a 9.250, Colbert knew she needed to have a good routine in order to save Michigan from counting a fall. Though her routine had a lesser start value, she flashed back to all the times she had practiced it in the gym. She thought about all the handstands and the dismounts, the latter of which had been giving her problems.

A misstep or a fall would mean a major deduction. With all the heat on, Colbert executed a near-flawless routine, ending with a clean, stuck landing.

"As soon as I let go of the bar, I knew I would land cleanly on my feet," she recalled. "The sticking was surprising."

In a sport where every tenth-of-a-point matters, Colbert's routine on uneven bars was the difference. After a judges' conference, which lasted close to 15 minutes, the score finally came down. The landing helped give Colbert a 9.700, giving Michigan the session win with a total team score of 195.875. Illinois, which was on balance beam, finished 195.850. If she doesn't hit that routine, the Wolverines might have found themselves as low as seventh place. Instead, they finished fourth in the standings.

Zurales sat the team down once again after the meet. She asked the team to reflect on how far they've come this season, to look at those first meets when things weren't going well to where things are now, to look at how much fun the team has had competing the last month of the season, and how confidence is showing in every gymnast's routines.

"Look at how much we've overcome," Zurales said. "Look at how we've come together. More importantly, look at how we've pushed through."

For a team that has been the Big Ten's best over the last two decades, a fourth-place finish doesn't sit well with anyone, but they see the bigger picture. As important as the conference meet is, this team is hoping to once again qualify for the NCAA Championships. Only a handful of college gymnastics teams can say they've had as much success at getting to NCAAs as Michigan, which has reached the national meet in 19 of the last 20 seasons.

The only way to get there is to finish among the top two teams at the NCAA Auburn Regional, held next Saturday night (April 7). Plocki has seen the team put together great rotations on all four apparatuses this season, but she has yet to see it happen all in the same meet.

If Michigan is to make a 20th appearance at the NCAA Championships, it will need to have its best meet of 2012.

"During the season, we've always said we had a great meet except for," Plocki said. "There can be no more 'except for.' We want these two weeks to be the next two weeks of our season, not the last two weeks. This is it. This is the time to dig our heels in and give it everything we have."

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