Abby Heiskell scored the gymnastics equivalent of a play call Saturday to lead Michigan to its first national championship.
With Michigan and Oklahoma tied in the final rotation and Heiskell the only gymnast left, the junior was able to anchor the beam with all of her team’s hopes and dreams on her shoulders.
During her 60-second free skate, her teammates and the crowd at Dickies Arena in Fort Worth, Texas, applauded her every move – her screams getting louder as she went through her routine.
Heiskell took a small jump on the way down, but it didn’t matter. She knew.
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She jumped up and put her hands over her heart before walking over to her excited teammates, who immediately accepted her. Together they joined forces and waited anxiously for their bill. On the other side of the horizontal bar, on the floor, an Oklahoma team stayed in the circle – the gymnasts were looking at each other and not at the scoreboard.
Heiskell finished with a 9.925 and led Michigan to a 198.2500 – .088 victory over Oklahoma.
Head coach Bev Płocki, in her 32nd season with the Wolverines, knew her team had a championship team, and she told her gymnasts that throughout the season.
It’s one of those moments you have as a coach, Płocki said. We say a lot to our athletes, I’m glad they listened to me and believed me, because I’ve believed in this team for a long time. And I just wanted them to really understand and accept how good they are and what they can do.
What they have accomplished this year is just amazing. I’m incredibly proud.
The Michigan win was the culmination of an incredible weekend with some exciting moments and plenty of drama. And if you miss a little action, fear not. Here are the key points to remember from this event.
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A revolutionary star
Heiskell may have won for Michigan, but it was sophomore Sierra Brooks who stood out for the Wolverines all weekend. On Saturday, she set the best individual score in the all-around with a 39.7750 – and also set the best score in Friday’s first semifinal to finish second.
Brooks said the key to her success is confidence in herself and knowing what she and her teammates are capable of.
I think we came in and said: Do some gymnastics. Don’t overdo it, don’t overdo it. Have faith in yourself, she said after the win. And that’s exactly what we did today. We arrived confident and it paid off.
With two years left and the return of Heiskell and 10-time All-American Natalie Wojcik, who are playing their final seasons next year, Michigan could already be the favorite to win the title in 2022.
Such parity has never existed in NCAA women’s gymnastics.
Throughout most of Saturday, three teams – Michigan, Oklahoma and Utah – had a chance at the championship, and it looked like a huge score or a devastating turnaround could decide everything. So the end of the event was exciting and somewhat unusual.
In a sport where only six schools combined to win all 39 titles through Saturday, Michigan became the first champion since Oklahoma in 2014 – and the seventh champion in history.
Of the eight schools that came to Fort Worth, four were looking for their first title. California, which finished third in Friday’s first semifinal, not only let the lead slip away, but also won its first NCAA title in program history, with Maya Bordas winning a share of the title on the stretch pole.
Will this be the start of a trend towards champions? Only time will tell.
It’s not so great being an alligator on a Saturday.
Florida was in first place during the 2021 regular season. Led by junior Trinity Thomas, the team was the big favorite to win the title for most of the year. But he struggled in the postseason – in part because of an ankle injury that kept Thomas out of the bullpen for six weeks – and surprisingly finished third at the SEC Championships last month, where he narrowly missed the team final on Saturday.
Thomas returned for all four parts on Friday, but showed signs of rust and fell on a block in the team’s first round on Saturday. With Peyton Richards already down, it had a devastating effect. Thomas’ 9.175 had to be factored into the rankings, and the Gators were already second at .6625, behind Utah in third place.
Considering the Gators entered the postseason as the best team in the country, this result was particularly shocking – and they never recovered.
The end result was not what we wanted, but I think many of us feel that way: Hey, we gave it our all, Florida senior Megan Skaggs told the school’s website. This night obviously didn’t go the way we wanted, but we have a lot to be proud of.
After a season full of restrictions and protocols due to the coronavirus pandemic, it probably shouldn’t have come as a surprise that last weekend was a scare.
During the warm-up for the first semifinal on Friday afternoon, the entire California team was escorted off the field according to contact court protocols. The team was kept off the field for about 40 minutes before they were finally allowed to return with all their members. The game was extended a bit to give the Golden Bears a few minutes to prepare after an unexpected distraction.
Although the scene was somewhat surreal and caused confusion for a moment among the spectators in the arena and the home crowd, it was clearly a draw for the team.
I have to say our team is prepared for these scenarios, Cal head coach Justin Howell told the school’s website. We do so many interesting things during training that they are always up for anything. If there was a team that could handle the kind of stops and challenges we had today, our Bears would be the team that could.
Fortunately, that fear was not there on Saturday. Since the crowd in the arena was limited – about 25% of capacity – it really seemed like a typical event, especially compared to many games this season where there were few or no fans present.
Webb wins all rights to the title
In one of the most impressive individual performances in recent memory, Oklahoma’s Anastasia Webb won the all-around Friday, as well as a share of the titles on the jump and floor.
So yes, it was a very good day for Webb, even if the weekend didn’t end the way she had hoped. After spending most of her career in the shadow of world champions Maggie Nichols and Brenna Dowell, the Sooners seized her opportunity and cemented her place among the program’s big names.
If you haven’t seen any of these highlights yet, do yourself a favor and watch Webb at the four events below. The fact that you jumped on the last team is the exclamation point you didn’t know you needed.
Blanco, the queen of wood
There were several winners, for all titles on Friday except beam. Alabama’s Luisa Blanco dominated the match – as she has for most of the season – with a 9.9625.
Even if you saw it live when it aired, you’ll want to see it again.
As a sophomore, Blanco is one of the rising stars we look forward to next season.
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