Gymnasts hope to snap Michigan’s 6-title string

by Susan Filkins

Six years ago, the Minnesota women’s gymnastics team won the Big Ten championship. But Michigan, which has won the last five titles, has dominated the conference since then.
This year the No. 3 Wolverines are on track to make six their magic number — unless the No. 20 Gophers can break Michigan’s reign.
The decisive moment will occur this weekend when the Big Ten championships will be held at the Sports Pavilion.
The Gophers (13-4) are confident this is the year they can bring the trophy back to Minnesota.
“We think it’s possible,” Gopher’s coach Jim Stephenson said. “Michigan does great gymnastics and in some places they are exceptional, but we think there is a good possibility that we can beat them.”
This will not be an easy task. There is good reason why Michigan has ruled the conference thus far.
Last season Michigan finished second in the NCAA regionals and sixth in the NCAA championships. The Wolverines also produced seven All-Big Ten selections while sweeping the individual titles in four events at the 1996 Big Tens, including the all-around title.
The only Gopher who took home an individual title last year was junior Mindy Knaeble who tied Michigan sophomore Lisa Simes for a share in the floor exercise.
Knaeble said she does not feel any added pressure to defend her title this year at Big Tens, but said she would not mind winning it again.
“I don’t feel any pressure, just excitement,” Knaeble said. “It would be nice and a great sense of accomplishment.”
While Knaeble is ranked ninth in the nation on the floor exercise, two Wolverines are ranked above her — junior Heather Kabnick (No. 3) and freshman Sarah Cain (No. 4). Both Michigan gymnasts have recorded perfect 10.0 scores this season.
Cain is also ranked second in the nation in the all-around competition. Minnesota’s only all-arounder is freshman Judith Cavazos, who finished second to Cain when the Gophers lost to Michigan earlier this season at Ann Arbor, 193.525 to 192.100.
Last year’s defending Big Ten champion in the uneven bars is back for more. Sophomore Nikki Peters is No. 1 in the nation in the event, having already scored a perfect 10.0 this year. She is also Michigan’s best chance for a title in the vault, where she is ranked third.
Michigan as a team is ranked second in the nation on every event except for the balance beam where they are ranked sixth. Minnesota’s highest team ranking is in the floor, where they are seventh.
The statistics prove the inevitable, but according to Stephenson, these statistics do not mean anything when it comes to competing.
“In the Big Ten meet, there are no stats,” Stephenson said. “It is as competitive a competition as the national championships. It’s hugely competitive because of what it represents.”
Last year Minnesota finished a disappointing and shocking fourth. This year the Gophers said if they finish anywhere less than second, it would be devastating.
Currently the Gophers are the third ranked Big Ten team behind Michigan and No. 17 Ohio State. Following Minnesota is No. 23 Penn State, No. 24 Michigan State, No. 40 Illinois, and No. 44 Iowa.
The Gophers have not faced Penn State or Michigan State this season but have defeated Illinois, Iowa, and Ohio State.
With this in mind, the Gophers know it will likely come between them and Michigan.
“The University of Michigan is the team we are really eyeing,” sophomore Cathy Keyser said. “We look at the scores every week and where they are nationally ranked.”
Senior co-captain Kristen Vandersall said she is wondering when and if the Wolverines will ever fall.
“You look at Michigan and think, ‘What more can you guys do, give us a chance,'” she said.
The other senior co-captain, Jonda Hammons, said the Gophers need to go into the meet with confidence and hit everything.
“We need to make our goals controllable,” Hammons said. “We can’t control what scores Michigan can get, but we can control how we look out on the floor and our performance and unity. I think that’s what we need to focus on.”