Last year, Michigan finished an OK, if somewhat disappointing, 9th. They qualified comfortably to championships but failed to put up a major challenge for a Super Six spot. While Michigan was not one of the seeded favorites to advance, they (like Stanford) will have kicked themselves for not taking advantage of the upset opportunity sitting in from of them. The Wolverines ended up needing just a 49.050 on beam to make Super Six, but that didn't really happen.
Michigan has spent the last few seasons right in the mix around the 7-9 area in the rankings, which is just where the coaches have ranked them this year. Their best recent season came in 2011, Kylie Botterman's senior year, when they qualified to Super Six for the first time since the Elise Ray years, but that excellent performance was followed by a low point the next year when a combination of graduations and injuries left them ranked in the 20s for most of the season and unable to challenge.
Given the roster situation this year, with all those essential routines from last year lost and a few key players recovering from injury and yet currently ready to compete, you would be forgiven for having some 2012 flashbacks. The scenarios are somewhat similar, but even though it will be a tough season for Michigan, I'm not putting them down in the 20s. This team should be able to compete, and given what we've seen so far in the preseason and in past performances, I'd still pick them to make it to nationals without hesitation. Super Six will be a very tough ask, but that's probably hypocritical of me to say since I was optimistic about Stanford even though they currently have -3 healthy gymnasts. Michigan has enough people to make lineups right now, and that's a start.
One concern for Michigan (and one major difference between Michigan and some of the other teams ranked similarly in the preseason poll) is the number of 9.9s in these lineups. Most of the 9.9s from last season aren't here anymore, and the pressure will be on returning gymnasts to score 9.9s for routines that haven't regularly received 9.9s before. In particular, it will be down to Sachi Sugiyama and Nicole Artz to transform from early-lineup supporting players into anchoring stars.
(Beautiful vault, but let's talk about how one judge gave it a 10. False.)
Returning lineup — Austin Sheppard (9.945), Sachi Sugiyama, (9.870), Talia Chiarelli (9.815), Nicole Artz (no RQS)
Without question, Austin Sheppard is the star vaulter on this team. She was one of the strongest vaulters in the country last season and has done everything except get a 10 on this event. She's the 9.975 queen—usually more deserved than in the video above. Getting Sheppard healthy and back into the vault lineup is essential. I don't see the rest of the team getting much more than a 49.2 without her, which isn't a bad score but is at least three tenths below what the best teams will be recording. If Sheppard's usual vault comes back, Michigan will be much more competitive and much more capable of challenging for 49.3+ (or absorbing an early 9.7 if necessary).
Sugiyama and her 1.5 will be similarly critical. I really liked the idea of putting Sugiyama in the leadoff position last year (early-lineup difficulty is my favorite—it's harder to underscore difficulty and it also has the potential to push up the scores of cleaner, easier routines to follow), but without Sampson and Beilstein this season, Sugiyama's vault is so much more important than it was last year. Michigan in 2015 doesn't have the luxury of putting her in the leadoff spot. She needs to be deep in the lineup getting 9.9s.
A couple more strong scores will need to join them, and Nicole Artz and Talia Chiarelli are the most likely candidates. Chiarelli was getting a lot of 9.800s and 9.850s last year, which is fine, but not the Brestyan's vaulting she can produce. When you're a Brestyan's gymnast, your vault needs punch everyone else in the face every time. I need to be punched in the face this season. There are a few other 9.7ish options for the remaining spots in Brooke Parker and Briley Casanova, but a couple of the freshmen should see time here as well. Vault is not Brianna Brown's best event, but she can work a full, and Ilana Gordon could be a factor as well. I do anticipate a couple early-lineup lower scores this year, so it will be down to the big anchor vaults to lift up the total.
Returning lineup — Sachi Sugiyama (9.855), Nicole Artz (9.855), Lindsay Williams (no RQS)
Unfortunately for Michigan, losing all the top-scoring routines from last year is kind of a trend right now. The top three RQSs from 2014 (Sampson, Beilstein, and Gies) are all gone, but that's not as worrying as it could be, or will be on some other events. Michigan has proven the ability to pour bad handstands and sloppy legs into a cauldron along with eye of newt and poisoned dragon's liver and in a few minutes magic up a huge bars routine. Hello, Natalie Beilstein. Hello, Austin Sheppard. Since there are just four returning gymnasts—Sugiyama, Artz, Sheppard, Williams—who have performed a competition bars routine before (five if we include Annette Miele, but is she able to come back?) the bars witchcraft will need to be in full swing. Get it? Swing? Bars? I'm a delight.
A couple new stars will have to emerge, and Brianna Brown must be the leader of this epic quest for new 9.9s. She's the Ponce de Leon of this expedition with her amplitude and skill set, and this will be her most important routine for the team. Also, a quick mention of Nichelle Christopherson. Coming off one of the more dramatic and mercurial verbal journeys (Is it UCLA? Is it Florida? No, it's Michigan?) she has landed with the Wolverines and is joining the team this year. I don't know what to expect from her across the board, but bars should be a thing. That shaposh and that ray. Those are skills.
Returning lineup — Nicole Artz (9.840), Talia Chiarelli (9.835), Briley Casanova (9.770), Lindsay Williams (no RQS)
I have said some harsh things about Michigan's beam rotation over the last few years. Mostly because watching Michigan on beam has been so stressful. When Michigan competes beam, it's a clinical-strength deodorant kind of day, is what I'm saying. The flip side of this problem is that even though losing Sampson, Gies, and Zakharia as beam options is a blow to the team—especially since Sampson was their best beamer—it's not like they're losing guaranteed 9.9s. Everyone in this lineup could be a little 9.600 on any given day, so beam is probably the most likely event to stay the same.
Most of the returners should make it back into the lineup. Artz has the makings of a standout, Casanova is either a 9.900 or a 9.725 but the 9.9s can happen, and one of the pleasant surprises for Michigan last season was Talia Chiarelli. I had my doubts about her ability to hit beam given her elite track record, but she proved to be perhaps the most consistent member of the lineup. There were plenty of 9.7s in there, but a 9.7 isn't a fall. She'll need to bring that back.
Still, there should be an opportunity to inject some new life into beam. The preseason injury to Lauren Marinez is, in Bev Plocki's words, "a bummer." Yeah, it's a total bummer. Marinez has the potential to be beautiful on beam, but Brown can still come into the lineup here, and I'd like to see India McPeak as well since she can be so exciting. I'm a little concerned that her most interesting elements aren't making it into the routine, but we'll see.
In all, is this another year of 49.050s? Probably.
Returning lineup — Nicole Artz (9.905), Sachi Sugiyama (9.845), Talia Chiarelli (9.785)
Joanna Sampson was a star on every event, but her floor routine was the biggest of the big deals. A 9.950 big deal. This floor rotation in 2015 is going to be mostly unrecognizable and slightly bizarre-feeling without Sampson, Beilstein, and Zakharia. They were Michigan's floor lineup. This year, there won't be the same E-passes-coming-out-of-every-orifice dynamic, but the returning trio is very capable. They will be relied upon not only to hit but to get the 9.9s we've come to expect from the back of Michigan's floor lineup.
Artz is already there. She was nailing that piked full in all over the place for 9.9s last year (and does not land it staggered like a bunch of other people), and I expect that to continue. It's going to a fight to find those reliable 9.9s in the 5th and 6th spots across the events this year, but Artz certainly provides one on floor. Sugiyama also has a strong routine that has sometimes been overlooked in that first position, but as she assumes a deeper role in the lineup, she can also get in on the 9.9 game. With Chiarelli and Parker joining the game, it seems 49.3s will be reasonable here, but they'll still have to fill out the lineup somehow. Some of the freshmen might pop in, with Brianna Brown once again seeming the most likely, but the need for other options is why it was so important to see Briley Casanova compete for a 9.800 at the exhibition. She has been a bit player so far in her Michigan career, but the team will need options like a solid floor routine from her this season.