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March 26, 2009 - Image 5

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The Michigan Daily, 2009-03-26

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The Michigan Daily - michigandaily.com

Thursday, March 26, 2009 -5A

Santander's mental
focus key for Michigan

ARIEL BOND/Daily
Sophomore Aaron Palushaj has scored three goals and notched seven assists in the Michigan hockey team's past six games.
Palushaj hot a ain
after midseason lull

By COLT ROSENSWEIG
Daily Sports Writer
For some gymnasts, it's a good
sign when the crowd goes wild
after pulling off a particular skill.
But when junior Mel Santander
is in perfectform, he often inspires
an awed, breathless silence. His
graceful lines are unmistakable as
he pulls off skills that seem physi-
cally impossible. And the crowd
seems almost afraid to move, as
if it might somehow spoil the per-
fection.
"He has fantastic basics and
gorgeous lines," senior Scott Breg-
man said. "When he's able to hold
onto both of those when he does
hard skills, he makes some of the
most difficultthings look easy and
beautiful. ... You watch it and you
go, 'That's pure. That's what you
want it to look like.' "
And to succeed, all Santander
has to do is get out of his own way.
Santander, who was voted Michi-
gan's MVP by his teammates last
season, tends to put unreasonable
pressure on himself. That's usu-
ally the case at the annual Win-
ter Cup competition in February.
Until this year, Santander had
bowed out on the first night of
competition.
This season, Santander wanted
to make the second day so much
that he stressed himself out of
a great performance on the first
night. But he still qualified for the
second round - where, all of a
sudden, the pressure was off.
"It felt like another, 'Oh, here's
anotheryearI'mnotgoingto make
second day again,' " Santander
said. "Kind of depressing. But
after knowing that I made second
day, itnkind of made me realize that
I was sort of good. I was decent.
Then, second day, I had nothing to
lose. I just wanted to show every-
body what I can do."
On that second day of competi-
tion, he proved he was more than
simply decent. Among the best
gymnasts in the country, San-
tander finished fifth on pommel

By MICHAEL EISENSTEIN
Daily Sports Editor
Over the past two seasons, he's
tallied 71 assists, the most in the
country - and he's just a sopho-
more.
But in the first 14 games of 2009,
that was barely apparent.
After representing the United
States in the World Junior Cham-
pionships in late December, for-
ward Aaron Palushaj tallied points
in just six contests.
The playmaker didn't complete-
ly fall off in production - he just
wasn't the player most were used
to seeing on the ice.
"I didn't really get too much of a
break there when I went to World
Juniors - it was kind of a grind
that whole month while everybody
was resting," Palushaj said. "So I
came back those few weeks after
and I wasn't myself.
"I think it was just ... my lack
of effort just because I was so
exhausted those weeks coming
back."
Even more taxing may have
been the mental battle of playing
in the high-pressure champion-
ships, in which the United States
placed fifth.
"You try to serve your country
well, then you come back without a
medal (and) it's kind of a little dev-
astating," Palushaj said. "Truth
is, after we came back, we played
Miami (Ohio) twice, and it's a com-
pletely different level of play. You
really don't want to play hockey
the next few days."
Palushaj elected to jump right

back into the lineup instead of
taking time off when he returned
to the Wolverines. He even got on
the board with a pair of assists in
his first game back, but Palushaj
noticed he wasn't moving his feet
well enough, skating hard enough
or passing the puck crisply enough.
Those were his best attributes in
the first half of the season, when
he led Michigan in points with
eight goals and 17 assists.
Michigan coach Red Berenson
saw Palushaj return with less con-
fidence than when he left to don
the USA sweater in Ottawa, Ont.
"They're in a different situation
with different players and coach-
es," Berenson said about players
leaving to play in the champion-
ships. "They're chosen on the team
but sometimes they don't get used
the way they get used here. They
come back second-guessing them-
selves. We've had kids leave here
when they were leading our team
in scoring and then they hardly
play on the world junior team, for
one reason or another.
"We've supported the program,
but it hasn't always been a win-win
for our players."
After three or four weeks,
Palushaj again began to look like
his normal self on the ice.
And in the final weekend of the
regular season, the points started
pouring in, with Palushaj nabbing
two assists against Ferris State at
the start of a hot six-game streak.
In the last six games, Palushaj
has lit the lamp three times and
assisted seven goals. Berenson
said the sophomore is close to

where he was in the beginning of
the season when he "started like a
house afire."
Palushaj's greatly improved
defensive play is a major reason
he has improved from a plus-10
forward last year to one boasting a
plus-25 plus-minus ratio this sea-
son. The coaching staff is seeing
him buy into Michigan's empha-
sis of playing strongly without the
puck.
"We rarely recruit a player
strictly because he's good defen-
sively," Berenson said. "We recruit
a player because he's good offen-
sively, or he's got the smarts, or he's
got a great combination of skills, a
package of skills. Then we'll teach
them how to play without the puck
if he doesn't know. Most of them
don't know."
And reuniting with his line-
mates from last year, sophomores
Matt Rust and Carl Hagelin, cer-
tainly helps, too.
Alongside his classmates,
Palushaj put up six points in the
NCAA Tournament last season,
including three assists in the Fro-
zen Four.
"When they got Palushaj back,
it was like getting an old family
member back in the fold," Beren-
son said. "Then they produced as
well."
Palushaj realizes his role as a
playmaker, and his confidence is
finally back up to normal after a
mid-season lull.
"t've just been playing hard,"
Palushaj said. "That's why I think
the points have been coming late-
ly."

horse.
Santander's development hasn't
gone unnoticed, either. Michigan
assistant coach Derek Croad has
seen dramatic changes in San-
tander since his freshman year,
when Santander was one of the
most reserved athletes the Michi-
gan men's gymnastics team had
ever seen. On his recruiting trip,
he was so shy that he sometimes
didn't even respond to questions.
Now Santander has become
even more motivated in the gym
and has enjoyed himself outside
the sport, too.
"When it comes to gym, I have
not seen him more intense than
this year, how concentrated he is
at what he does, how focused he
is on any corrections," Croad said.
"You really can't see him getting
distracted at all. When he start-
ed off, he could have been easily
distracted. ... He's matured into a
very good young man and a good
athlete."
And he has come out of his shell.
From being the kid who didn't
speak up, he's become almost a
chatterbox who amazes his team-

mates with his side talent of danc-
ing. Bregman said he often tiptoes
past Santander's room in hopes of
catching his housemate practicing
new moves.
The mental pressure of the
sport might stillbe problematic for
the junior. But as the postseason
approaches, the Southborough,
Mass., native's physical prowess
could make up for it. Against Illi-
nois, he hit his most difficult high
bar routine for the first time. In
Michigan's recent win in Colum-
bus, he hit four of his five sets,
including his trademark routines
on pommel horse and parallel
bars.
He's capable ofcompetinginthe
all-around along with sophomores
Chris Cameron and Thomas Kel-
ley, and Santander's scores will be
a key part of Michigan's Big Ten
title run two weekends from now.
"Mel used to be the guy where
he got up and you had no freaking
clue what was going to happen,"
Croad said. "You just sat there
and prayed to God that he would
stay on. Now, it's the opposite. We
know he's going to hit."

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