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Chrös McDougall | | April 12, 2014

McDougall: Michigan is the host with the most

  Michigan claimed it’s third national title in five years at home on Friday.

ANN ARBOR, Mich. -- Until this weekend, Michigan hadn’t hosted the NCAA NC Men’s Gymnastics Championships since 1971. That was 25 years before Kurt Golder took over as coach and four years before he won his first letter as a Wolverines gymnast. The oldest athlete on this year’s roster, 23-year-old graduate student Syque Caesar, wouldn’t be born for nearly two decades.

So hosting the meet, needless to say, is a new experience.

“We’re trying to treat it just like any other national championships, so we’re staying in the hotel and bussing back and forth to the hotel and the arena,” Golder said earlier this week. “Not ever having done this before, I don’t know if it’s an advantage, but I’ll be able to tell you afterward.

“I hope it is.”

The rocking home crowd at the Crisler Center indeed turned out to be an advantage, and the timing of the championship meet’s return to Ann Arbor couldn’t have come at a better time. A golden generation of Michigan men’s gymnastics continued to add to its legacy Friday night as the Wolverines cruised to a title defense in the team competition and senior Sam Mikulak successfully won his third NCAA all-around title.

Michigan, which scored 445.050 points to second-place Oklahoma’s 441.650 and third-place Stanford’s 436.300, claimed its third national title in five years and became the first U-M team to win back-to-back NCAA titles since the trampoline team did so in 1959 and '60.

“It doesn’t get any better than winning it at home,” said Golder, who has now won four team titles since taking over the struggling program in 1996. “This is my fourth one, and they’re all great, but winning in front of the Michigan crowd in Crisler Center … it makes it a lot sweeter. I couldn’t ask for anything more.”

Mikulak, to the surprise of no one, was Michigan’s star. A senior from Corona del Mar, Calif., he had the top scores of the night in floor exercise, vault and parallel bars, plus the second best score in pommel horse. Despite a fall on the high bar and a shaky performance on rings, the 2012 Olympian and defending U.S. champion ended up winning the all-around title by nearly two points. He had 91.100 points to Stanford freshman Akash Modi’s 89.200.

What made Michigan’s victory all the more impressive, though, was that the team was without two key gymnasts and had a third limited to three events. Injuries kept junior Adrian de los Angeles, last year’s NCAA all-around runner-up, and junior Michael Strathern out of Friday’s meet. Fellow junior Stacey Ervin, competing with a torn bicep, was limited to three events and still finished tied for the seventh best score on floor exercise.

The Wolverines used 13 gymnasts on Friday. Besides Mikulak, Caesar was the only other gymnast to record multiple top-10 scores. The sixth-year senior and a 2012 Olympian for Bangladesh, Caesar finished fifth in high bar and tied for sixth in parallel bars.

“We have the largest team in the NCAA, and we needed it this year,” Golder said. “It really paid off for us this year. If we didn’t have that depth, it’s possible we’d be hosting and not even in the super six.”

The gymnasts did their part, though, and so did the crowd. A nearly full lower bowl at the Crisler Center kept the energy high all night for a Wolverines team that game them plenty to cheer about.

“This was the loudest competition I’ve ever been in for a Michigan collegiate meet, and it was just phenomenal,” Caesar said. “It’s just a whole difference experience. You’re with your team, your brothers you’ve been with for four years in college; it’s just a whole other aspect to the sport. It’s unbelievable; it’s awesome.”

In fact, the run has been so much fun that Golder isn’t quite ready to give it up, even without Mikulak and Caesar next season.

“It’s just so much fun winning a national championship that we may as well do it again next year,” he said.

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