The Michigan women’s gymnastics team couldn’t have picked a better way to kick off its 2019 season. The Wolverines will join Iowa State, West Virginia, and Rutgers at the Cancun Classic in Cancun, Mexico, on Jan. 4.
"Yes, it's a business trip. Yes, it's about the competition, and we want to be clean, we want to be consistent and we want to have a good showing," Michigan head coach Bev Plocki said.
But, she continued, the trip also offers a unique bonding opportunity for her squad.
“What is important about this trip are the opportunities to be completely away from everything, just the team spending time together as a team, bonding, really, really getting a closeness and getting to know and understand each other, and in a place where maybe cell service and Wi-Fi is not going be the greatest. Put your phones down a little bit and spend time talking. It's a bonding [opportunity], not just for the team, but also between the team and the staff. I look at the byproducts of that as being very beneficial for us as we start out this season as well.”
Michigan is looking to get off to a strong start after the way it ended the 2018 campaign. The Wolverines looked like they were a lock to make it to the NCAA Championships, but came up short in the regional round.
“I think we really had a great season last season, but we didn't have a great meet when we needed to at regionals,” Plocki said. “When you look back at seasons, as people do, not qualifying to the National Championships certainly overshadowed what otherwise was a very, very strong season for us.”
What Michigan was able to accomplish was impressive. The team posted an overall record of 26-5-1 and claimed the Big Ten title after rolling to an 8-1 conference record.
It was the 24th Big Ten championship in the program’s history. Twenty-three of those titles have been under Plocki's leadership.
Yet the fact that Michigan was the highest-ranked team to not make the championship is a hard fact to overlook.
“I just think we competed as if we were nervous, instead of really going out there and doing what we had done all season long, which was compete with confidence and enjoy the experience,” Plocki said. “Regionals is a difficult meet from the standpoint you have more to lose, but we've got to do a better job at getting our team to look at what we have to gain instead of competing with that pressure of what we have to lose.”
An infusion of young talent should help the Wolverines put the 2018 season behind them.
“We are going count a great deal on our incoming freshmen. We've got a great incoming freshmen class,” Plocki said. “We're counting very heavily right now on Natalie Wojcik and Abby Brenner.”
The other two freshmen on the 2019 roster are Abby Heiskell and Maddie Mariani. Both are coming off Achilles injuries and will be brought along slowly.
With a core portion of her roster being freshmen, Plocki will have to focus on getting them ready for a different level of competition than they are used to.
“I don't necessarily coach differently, in terms of coaching technique, but I think it's helping these young freshmen to ease into the transition, and to understand what to expect, and how the season is going,” Plocki said. “That it is a team effort, helping them learn that they don't have to place that pressure squarely on their shoulders as an individual. I think that's when you end up getting burnout, is when there's too much pressure, and then all of a sudden, you're competing every single weekend.”
But the Wolverines won’t just be relying on fresh faces this year. Senior Emma McLean and junior Lexi Funk will provide the leadership and foundation for Michigan.
As a junior, McLean earned NACGC/W regular season All-America second team honors on floor and was a first team All-Big Ten selection. Her floor scoring average of 9.918 was the sixth best nationally and stands as the third best in school history.
“Emma is so fantastic. She's kind of an old soul. She has always had that super level-headed maturity, and very logical, can see all sides of a situation,” Plocki said. “She's a great listener. She's very motherly and nurturing. Within our team, she's respected very, very highly. She's not the most vocal cheerleader, but she is the one that is just always there, and she's rock-solid.”
With added depth from the freshmen and the experience from last season, the Wolverines are looking to get back the NCAA Championships. But Plocki knows that they have to take each step along the way seriously, and they have to do it together.
“This is my 30th year, and I think that the culture and the main foundation of our program remains the same, which is that it's the journey through a season with a group of athletes that are like family,” she said. “That that closeness and that unity, truly being a team, is one of our biggest assets.”
Don't forget to catch the Cancun Classic right here on FloGymnastics.