Only four schools have ever won an NCAA Division I women's gymnastics team title but Katie Lieberman and her University of Michigan teammates are striving to add a fifth to that list.
And if the No. 4-ranked Wolverines break into that elite company at the NCAA Women's Gymnastics Championships late next month, Lieberman, a three-time senior All-American from Lake Forest High School, will be front and center.
UCLA, Utah and Alabama. "A lot of people are doubting us but we've got a lot of confidence."
A big reason for that confidence stems from the Wolverines' win over top-ranked and three-time defending national champion Georgia March 7. The win marked the second time Michigan has beaten the Gym Dogs; Michigan is one of only seven programs to hand Georgia a regular season defeat in the last 19 years.
Lieberman's contribution to the win was tying for first in the floor exercise with a score of 9.9.
"We put it all together in that meet; that was an awesome boost," said Lieberman, who also competes in the vault. "It showed everyone that we could be right up there with the top programs."
The Wolverines continued their warmup for the postseason over the weekend in Ann Arbor by easily defending their Big Ten crown, outdistancing runner-up Illinois and third-place finisher Penn State. It was Michigan's 15th conference championship in the last 17 years.
Lieberman came up short in her quest to win an individual Big Ten title for the fourth straight year, as she tied for second in the vault with a score of 9.9. She had won the conference vault championship in her freshman and sophomore seasons and was the floor exercise winner last year.
"I would have loved to have come out with another individual title but the girl who won (Penn State's Brandi Personett) had an amazing vault; she deserved to win," said Lieberman. "As a team, we started out on the beam and got a lot of the nerves out. That created some momentum and we ended on the bars, which is probably our strongest event."
Lieberman added to her three individual conference titles by earning All-America recognition three times. She was a first and second-team choice, respectively, on the vault her first two years and earned first-team honors on the floor in 2007.
"It would be great to make an event final this year, too," she said. "If we do well as a team, it will probably also work out individually."
This is the deepest squad Michigan has fielded in Lieberman's four years in Ann Arbor, leading to the expectation of bettering the 11th-place finishes of the last two years. Next on the schedule are regionals April 12 before nationals two weeks later in Athens, Ga. Michigan has advanced to the finals 15 years in a row, earning seven regional titles.
At this point of the season, Lieberman is worn down enough physically that the little things make all the difference.
"It's such a long season but you just try to overlook being sore and tired," said Lieberman, who plans to work as a research assistant at the University of Michigan Hospital next year while applying for medical school. "Sometimes pointing your toes or bending your legs a little differently can be a real difference."
Despite the individual success Lieberman has enjoyed, all the focus at this time of year revolves around the team. That group focus is in stark contrast to the individual-oriented culture Lieberman experienced while a member of the Illinois Gymnastics Institute club team before attending Michigan.
"I love that it's all about team in college and it's so different than in club," said Lieberman. "We're all pulling for one another and hanging on every routine."
Several other local products also stood out at the 2008 Big Ten women's gymnastics meet.
One was Lieberman teammate Kylee Botterman (Lincoln-Way Central), a freshman who tied for the floor exercise title (9.9) and tied for second with Lieberman in vaulting (9.9). She became the first Michigan freshman to win floor exercise since 1998.
"It was a lot of fun," said Botterman after the meet. "My family was here to support both me and my sister (Illinois junior Marijka Botterman) and it was awesome. This whole week was about team. I just went out and had fun. I was looking forward to bars all night and I had an unreal time. Starting on beam didn't affect us that much. It was nice to get it out of the way and go strong from there not having to worry about anything. I am looking very forward to a week off. I think everyone needs a little break to let our bodies heal up a little bit."
Keeping up with ... Lake Forest's Katie Lieberman
ChicagoSports.com follows local high school athletes who have kept up their game after graduation
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