Michigan has the man.
In senior Sam Mikulak, the Wolverines have a two-time NCAA all-around champion, the reigning U.S. all-around champion and the world’s sixth best all-around gymnast. And if that wasn’t enough, Mikulak just set NCAA records in the all-around and parallel bars two weeks ago at the Big Ten championships.
Oklahoma, one of college men’s gymnastics’ powerhouse programs and the NCAA runners up the past three years, comes to Ann Arbor, Mich., with the top-ranked units in the floor exercise, pommel horse and rings, and tied for the top rank in vault, but one thing the Sooners don’t have is an all-around gymnast.
“This is probably the first time as a head coach that I don’t have a guy doing all-around at the national championships,” Oklahoma coach Mark Williams said, who has been at the helm in Norman since 2000 and led his teams to five NCAA titles. “To be honest, I’m a little bit uncomfortable not feeling like I have a go-to guy that is giving us scores everywhere, but that’s what this team is. It’s been collectively better than themselves. We don’t rely on one star or an individual to carry the whole team. It really has to come to the group.”
Even with no all-arounder, that group has its share of standout gymnasts. At the top of the list is junior Michael Squires. An Edmond, Okla., native, Squires won the NCAA title last season on rings and comes into this year’s meet with the No. 1 ranking. Junior Alec Robin, one of the top performers at last year’s NCAA championships with three top-six individual finishes, comes in with the No. 3 ranking in floor exercise. In total, the team has 11 gymnasts ranked in the top 20 in at least one event.
That depth has kept Oklahoma at the top of the rankings throughout the season, but the Sooners aren’t buying too much into their own hype.
“Even though we’ve maintained that ranking, we know that there are teams that can beat us any day,” Williams said.
Among the teams on that list are Ohio State and Stanford, but square at the top is Michigan.
The second-ranked Wolverines lost only one gymnast from last year’s championship team and went undefeated throughout this season, finishing 25-0 and 17-0 in the Big Ten. Although the team has been missing some gymnasts with injuries and resting some others, the squad fired a warning shot to its competition last month when it defended its conference title behind Mikulak’s record-breaking scores of 93.70 in the all-around and 16.10 in the parallel bars.
“Being ranked No. 2 is fine with me,” coach Kurt Golder said. “I’ve been ranked No. 10 before in 1999 and ended up winning it.”
Behind Mikulak, graduate student Syque Caesar, a 2012 Olympian from Bangladesh, could score big for the Wolverines. One year after having three top-three finishes at the NCAA championships, he enters this year’s meet with the top ranking in parallel bars. The big questions for Michigan will be juniors Adrian de los Angeles and Stavey Ervin. Both would normally join Mikulak as all-arounders -- de los Angeles was the all-around runner-up last year -- but will either be out or limited this weekend due to injuries, Golder said.
That puts a bit more weight on Mikulak’s shoulders, but so far Mikulak, a Corona del Mar, Calif. native, has shown he can carry it. In 2012, he came back from two broken ankles to make the U.S. Olympic Team. Since winning his second NCAA all-around title and third individual event title in 2013, Mikulak went on to win the U.S. title last summer, finish sixth at the world championships a few weeks later and then claim the top spot at the prestigious AT&T American Cup earlier this year.
“There’s no question that Sam Mikulak is the best gymnast in the country,” Williams said. “He is certainly in the top six in the world at this time. He is probably going to put his teammates on his back and try to carry them to back-to-back championships.”
Mikulak will also be looking to defend his individual event titles in parallel bars and high bar this weekend. In fact, all of the defending champions from last year are back: Penn State sophomore Trevor Howard won the floor exercise last year, Ohio State senior Michael Newburger won pommel horse, Illinois sophomore Fred Hartville won vault and Oklahoma’s Squires won rings.