After the depressing, injury-plagued slog that was the 2012 season, Michigan's 2013 saw a return to form for a team that should easily be top 10 in the nation every season. In fact, the Wolverines wholly exceeded expectations last year. I was optimistic that they would return to Nationals in comfortable fashion, but they came quite close to making Super Six and, in the much tougher semifinal, would have been right in it with UCLA and Oklahoma for those last spots if not for a rough beam adventure (and we'll get there in a minute).
Eight routines from Zurales, Martinez, and Colbert have been lost since
last year, and we can expect newcomers Talia Chiarelli and Nicole Artz
to step into most of those roles, competing on a couple events each. Bev
Plocki has also been touting increased contribution from Austin
Sheppard this season to fill a few of those eight openings as well. When
Brooke Parker transferred from Alabama, it appeared she was actually
going to get to compete now, but at least so far she has been right back
in the "great depth for our team" category.
Michigan in 2014 is still on the smaller side, relying on a few key stars, but most of the team members are believable on multiple events, so they can still be 9 and 10 deep on a couple of the apparatuses and shouldn't have to struggle to find enough 9.8 routines in the way we have seen at times over the last couple years. Much of that depth comes from the big senior class, which occasionally makes up half of the event lineups, so there is some urgency for this team to do something special this season while they still can. Let's explore a bit further.
Vault was regularly very impressive for Michigan last year, the prime area that carried them to momentary #1 and put them consistently in the top 5. The Wolverines finished the year ranked #4 on vault as the top non-SEC team.
The scoring leaders were Joanna Sampson and Austin Sheppard, who both brought in frequent 9.9s with huge power and height on their yfulls, and we can expect them to be 5th and 6th in the lineup this year for similar scores. Sachi Sugiyama is a bit more frequently down in the 9.825 area than the other two because the landing on the 1.5 can be so much more challenging, but she is also a great vaulter who can and will get 9.900 at times during the season. Natalie Beilstein is the fourth I'm mentioning, but she would be anchoring many teams. Ditto about the landing on the 1.5. Nonetheless, for all four of these vaulters, 9.850 is a weak score. They will each expect much better than that every time out and can lead the team to 49.400.
The one concern about keeping pace with last year's 49.435 RQS is the loss of Katie Zurales, who was regularly another of those 9.875-9.900 sisters on this event. This is where Talia Chiarelli can be a significant asset. She has that big Brestyan's vaulting and performed a DTY as an elite. Her vault at the exhibition meet wasn't as strong as I was expecting (she had an ankle injury and was a bit behind in training), but she should be there eventually. For the final spot, there are several options this year: Zakharia, Miele, Parker, Casanova, Artz. At least one will be able to come in for at least an establishing 9.800 at the beginning of the lineup, so matching last year's scoring is a distinct possibility here.
The loss of last year's seniors makes the bars situation a bit tougher than on vault because Zurales and Martinez were such strong scorers, the #2 and #3 workers for the team in 2013. Without them, Sampson will be expected to get the consistent 9.9s to lead Michigan out of the low 49s, which is quite possible because her mix of big power and clean handstands is candy in NCAA.
Fortunately, there's still room for optimism about keeping pace with last season's high 49.3s because Michigan has proven quite adept at conjuring bars routines from thin air. Last season, Natalie Beilstein was suddenly good at bars for high 9.8s, and now Austin Sheppard, who wasn't in the bars mix last year, is looking lineup likely with her colossal piked tkatchev. If these bars upstarts can perform in the 9.875 range, Michigan can use this event to gain on some of the other teams that rely more on vault and floor for their scores. That's a big if, but even if they can't get those scores, there should be some protection in the form of three other lineup members who have been reliably 9.850, Gies, Miele, and Sugiyama. I expect that to be the six (though I was pleased by the potential Nicole Artz showed in the exhibition in a clean routine), so as long as they're in the lineup each week, I can see 49.300.
OK, here we go. If you're looking to make an argument against Michigan making Super Six in 2014, may I present beam. It was the clear weak event last season, and even though they didn't count falls, they counted a lot of 9.7s and often scored in that 49.000-49.100 territory, which won't cut it in an environment where the top teams are putting up meets in the high 197s. High 197s are not possible with a lower-scoring event, and the Michigan situation gets more stressful considering the exit of the team's best beamer, Katie Zurales, the one who could get 9.9s.
At the preseason exhibition, the beam concerns picked up right where they left off. It was a wobble fest. Though Sampson was among the prime wobblers, we should expect big things from her on beam this year. She absolutely must get 9.9s because she's the one who can. There will be a lot of pressure on her routine to carry the rotation. Shelby Gies is also quite pretty here and usually hits for 9.850s, and I'd like to see her graduate from the first spot to get perhaps some higher scores.
The pleasant surprise from the exhibition was Talia Chiarelli with by far the solidest performance on the team. Watching her beam as an elite wasn't always a safe viewing experience, so if she can become a hitter in college, it will go a long way to saving the event. Beyond those three, if you can hit a routine, welcome aboard. Annette Miele stepped up her consistency game for the most part last year for 9.825s, so expect her back, and Nicole Artz has some potential here (and has trained an interesting switch split + front full dismount). Zakharia, Sheppard, Casanova, and Williams will also be in the hunt, but we're probably hoping for medium, 9.800 scores there. Beam will lag behind the other events with far fewer 9.9s, but the ability to pull out even just a 49.250 here could help make the season. There is plenty of potentially delightful beam work on this team, but I fear the wobble monster to an intense degree.
On a much happier note, floor was already a strong even for Michigan last season, and it's the place where the team has the most potential for improvement over 2013. In the returning category, Joanna Sampson is now a national champion and can 9.950 all over the place on this event with her humongous DLO, and she'll be supported by her royal court of Zakharia, Beilstein, and Sugiyama, all of whom can be expected to score greater than 9.850 on a regular basis. That's all most teams could ask for in a floor rotation, but Michigan is also adding several more high-potential options, all mounting with E passes.
Nicole Artz brings a piked full in and a pleasant mix of flexibility, height, and controlled tumbling; Austin Sheppard is introducing her big power to all the events now, not just vault; Chiarelli has a double arabian and should be in the mix here in time; and we could see action from Brooke Parker as well. At the exhibition, I was impressed and surprised overall by how far along the floor routines looked. There didn't seem to be many endurance issues, and the team presented lots of big, exciting options for the lineup. Expect 49.400s.
If it weren't for beam, I would happily be predicting Michigan into Super Six because the Wolverines appear to be a top 5 team across three events. They are still my pick to win the Big Ten title and could certainly still be one of those top six teams at Nationals because, judging by the strength on vault and floor and the potential on bars, they can score comfortably into the 197s even if beam is a 49.000.
It's if beam goes negative that the real challenge begins, and it should be the prime event to watch this year for most of Michigan's ranking peers as well. Beam wasn't exactly a strength for LSU or Utah in 2013 either, so even if Michigan isn't getting huge scores there, if they're besting LSU and Utah, that could be good enough. Beam scoring between those three teams will be a fun side story to watch this year.
Regardless, Michigan should easily make Nationals and be at least on the cusp of Super Six. A finish anywhere between 4th and 8th seems perfectly realistic.