Pandemic all-stars: In a tough year, Michigan college athletes bring home big titles
There have been a few big title wins for collegiate athletics in Michigan this spring, despite the challenge of competing amid a public health crisis. The women’s gymnastics team at University of Michigan won the NCAA national championship, and both the women’s field hockey team at U of M and the women’s golf team at Michigan State University won Big Ten Conference titles.
Coaches and athletes say these are hard-won titles that punctuate a year of frustration and uncertainty.
“This was a very different year,” said U of M gymnastics head coach Bev Plocki. “It really gave us the opportunity to focus on school and focus on gymnastics.”
A couple weeks ago, U of M women’s gymnastics earned its first national title in the school’s history. Plocki has coached the team for more than three decades. She’s an 11-time Big Ten Coach of the Year and NCAA Regional Coach of the Year, as well as an NCAA National Coach of the Year. And she says this championship was 32 years in the making.
“I'm so humbled by the outpouring of support for our team and our athletes and our program, and just really happy to finally have been able to conquer this mountain,” said Plocki.
Plocki says the abrupt end to a successful season last year was disappointing, and COVID-19 restrictions and safety precautions this season weren’t always easy to navigate. So, she says, this team adopted an ethos to rectify “unfinished business.”
“We also had taken the attitude that we just really have to be fluid,” she said. “We just never knew, every day, what it was going to bring, what kind of new changes, what kind of new sacrifices we were going to have to make. And you just get used to the fact that you're going to be out of your comfort zone the whole entire time.”
U of M’s field hockey team also had a great run this year, earning a seventh Big Ten title and making it to the NCAA national championship game. The Wolverines lost the championship game in heartbreaking fashion during overtime with the University of North Carolina Tar Heels. But U of M had returned to national title contention for the first time since the 2001 season.
Co-captain Clare Brush says this year’s unique challenges helped focus the team.
“It's been hard in a lot of ways, especially being a leader and trying to figure out how we adapt everything to all the protocols that are going on, the pandemic in general, and just kind of being a college student and an athlete at the same time,” Brush said. “But I think it's that adversity that has shaped us into who we are, and that has brought us together to become a really united team.”
Head coach Stacy Slobodnik-Stoll says last year the pandemic upset the Spartans’ hopes for the season — but this year, they’re ready for the national competition.
“They know what they need to do,” Slobodnik-Stoll said. “We need to be one of the top six to move on to the national championship. And they're poised and ready to do that, and they're peaking at the right time.”
This post was written by Stateside production assistant Nell Ovitt.