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Nebraska junior Desire’ Stephens, left, has become chief motivator for Husker Gymnastics.
Courtesy: NU Media Relations
          Release: 04/17/2014
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Huskers' Spark-plug Gymnast: We Can Win It!

Randy York's N-Sider

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We all have our own views of confidence and how important it is to believe in yourself as well as your teammates…to use your own optimism as the faith that leads to achievement…to understand that you either have it or you don’t…to assume that confidence is a required edge necessary to compete…to define confidence with strength and courage in the same sentence…to have someone who acknowledges fear yet has the leadership and chemistry to help a team fight through everything with the confidence that is absolutely necessary to win.

Those thoughts represent the competitive resume’ of a young lady named Desire’, and lay the foundation for Dan Kendig giving Desire’ Stephens the license to motivate Nebraska in this weekend’s 2014 NCAA Women’s Gymnastics Championship in Birmingham, Ala.

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Desire’ has a unique way of making her teammates feel comfortable.

Kendig: Stephens Relishes Leadership Role

“There’s no question that Desire’ is the one who stirs the emotional pot for our team,” said Kendig, a two-time National Coach of the Year and a nine-time Conference Coach of the Year in the Big 12 and Big Ten. “I think she likes that role. She feels like it’s her niche and her way of contributing beyond her individual performances. She did it when she was hurt, and it helped. The girls liked her being the spark-plug and responded to it. It’s helped turn Desire’ into one of our leaders, and she knows the importance of that.”

She also knows the highs and the lows at stake. “When we didn’t make the NCAA Championship meet last year, I cried,” Stephens said, even though she was just a sophomore. “Regionals were in Morgantown (West Virginia) and we didn’t move on. We were third by about a quarter-of-a-point. I don’t know if I said it that night, but I said to myself that is never going to happen again.”

Perspective is built into that bullish statement and this year’s theme is a simple one: "Let’s not beat ourselves. Some teams are here thinking ‘hey, we made it. We have nothing to lose’ and some teams that have been National Champions are squirming in their pants because they know they have to make the Super Six to keep their history going. Our history is different. We didn’t make it to nationals last year, so we can use this as a stepping stone. We’re going to prove everything we have, everything we’re capable of and lay it all out there on the floor.”

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In the week before Regionals, Stephens said Nebraska’s No. 9-ranked team “hasn’t touched the national championship floor, and we’re ready to compete on it,” she said. “Our mindset as a team is simple: We haven’t done our best yet and we’re still in it. Now we have one more meet to prove that we’re the best. I think everybody’s mindset on the team is the same: ‘Let’s fix the little things and focus on what needs to happen.’”

Make no mistake. When you’re the team’s spark-plug that starts the ignition for everyone else, there is no fear of failure, only hope for triumph. Stephens can and does envision national championship banners with Nebraska’s entire team celebrating. She can even see individual faces. “I can see everybody there,” she told me. “I think we have the capacity to win it all. I think everybody has the talent at this point.”

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Desire’ inspires others, but also contributes as an individual performer.

Alabama, Florida in Nebraska’s Semifinal 

Kendig and Stephens are in agreement on that. Twelve teams are still standing. Six compete Friday afternoon – Georgia, Illinois, LSU, Michigan, Oklahoma, and Stanford in the afternoon. The evening session brings together Alabama, Florida, Nebraska, Penn State, UCLA, and Utah. The three top teams from each of those sessions compete Saturday night in the Super Six, and the individual finals will be Sunday.

“We have to be at our best on Saturday,” Stephens told me. “It doesn’t matter what you did the night before. What matters is what you do right then and there when you salute it. If you are the best team that night, then you will be the National Champion. We have the talent to do it. We can win it!”

As a positive-minded coach, Kendig would be the last to dispute such vision. “Every team’s different but every team has not experienced it,” he said. “That’s the only reason you’re in this sport – to win and to do exactly what you need to do to win. If that’s not your purpose to train and excel and get to the top level, then you’re doing you student-athletes a disservice.”

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Husker All-American Emily Wong is a passionate, team-driven leader.

NCAA Last Meet for Wong, Schleppenbach

Kendig and assistants Heather Brink and Dan Miller have coached a deep and talented lineup to challenge for a spot in the Super Six. Emily Wong was first and Jessie DeZiel was third in the all-around at the NCAA’s Seattle Regional. Hollie Blanske also “did a great job” in the all-around, according to Kendig, who also is counting on stellar performances from Jennie Laeng in three events and four other two-event performers – Stephens, Ariel Martin, Jamie Schleppenbach, and Amanda Lauer.

“We start on floor, and we’re going to need to do what we did at regionals and then some,” Kendig said. “It’s like a pyramid. Every time you start heading closer to the top, the tighter the competition gets. We’ve prepared through purposeful practice, and I believe we need to stay loose at nationals like we did at regionals to really compete like we know how.”

For Wong and Schleppenbach, this is the last competitive chapter they will write in the NCAA. “Last year, regionals was our worst meet of the year, and we still just missed making it by the smallest of margins,” Kendig said. “We’ve worked hard to get back here. Our chemistry has been really good. We’ve competed well as a team and now we’re down to the last piece in the puzzle – Do our job Friday night. Make sure we move on to Saturday night.”

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Huskers’ Dan Kendig has been named National Coach of the Year twice.

Confidence, Chemistry, Courage Crucial

Confidence is paramount and the Huskers’ overall performance will be tied directly to the encouraging words that Nebraska’s spark-plug will use to infuse her teammates…faith, strength, courage, leadership and chemistry. “Everyone on this team will raise their hand and say we haven’t hit the best we can do yet,” Kendig said. “They all believe they can do better, and that’s what you hang your hat on when it comes down to the end.

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