By Brian Rosenthal / Huskers.com
Taylor Houchin first noticed the impact of Nebraska fans when she began her final tumbling pass on floor exercise.
Normally exhausted and digging deep for self-motivation at this point of her routine, Houchin actually over-rotated this time. She had more power than she thought, a result of the fans’ energy, the freshman said.
Later, on vault, Houchin heard the loud ovation when she stuck her landing. That, she said, brought tears to her eye.
“And I don’t really cry, ever,” said Houchin, whose 9.9 on the event tied a career high. “It was like a really big moment for me.”
For the Nebraska women’s gymnastics team, the 3,808 fans who attended the NCAA Lincoln Regional – about 1,000 more than officials initially expected Saturday at the Devaney Sports Center – are a major reason the Huskers will head to St. Louis in two weeks and compete for a national championship.
“The crowd can definitely make a difference,” Nebraska coach Dan Kendig said. “I’ve said that for how long?”
Oh, for about 24 years, or as long as Kendig has been coaching Nebraska. The Huskers have now qualified for the NCAA Championships for the 19th time in his tenure, and 25 times in school history.
Nebraska, ranked No. 14 nationally, entered the Lincoln Regional as the No. 3 seed, an underdog to top-seeded LSU and second-seeded Boise State.
LSU, ranked No. 2 nationally, had a final score of 197.45 to clinch the regional championship heading into the final rotation, where the Tigers had a bye. But the top two teams qualify for nationals, and Nebraska, with a slim lead over Boise State through three events, actually expanded its margin with a strong showing on the balance beam.
Nebraska finished with a 196.625, and Boise State was third with a 196.150 in the six-team meet.
“We still have not had our best meet of the year. Ask them,” Kendig said. “We’re ready to still do that. Why not do that, go to Super Six, and see what happens?”
Nebraska has advanced to the Super Six Finals – the top three teams from two semifinals – 11 times under Kendig, yet never finished higher than fourth.
The Huskers will surely face some stressful situations at the NCAA Championships, but Saturday proved they’re well prepared for any challenge.
Twice, Nebraska had the pressure of needing clean routines after an early fall on an event. On the uneven bars, Danielle Breen hadn’t fallen all year, but missed the bar on her exchange.
“But it didn’t get us down,” Kendig said.
“(Breen) came up to me after bars and said, ‘Thank you so much for that,’ ” Laeng said.
Breen was prepared to return the favor on Nebraska’s final event.
This time, Laeng stumbled and fell early on her beam routine. That meant the Huskers’ final two competitors would need to have clean routines. Another fall would open the door for Boise State to claim the No. 2 spot and trip to nationals.
“I am a perfectionist, as is almost everyone on our team, so I was really frustrated with myself initially when I came off the beam. And then, honestly, what was going through my head was this might be my last beam routine ever,” Laeng said.
“I kind of pulled it together and was like, ‘I’m going to do this for my team, and just finish it off the best that I could.’ ”
Grace Williams followed with a 9.9, and Breen also picked up Laeng by scoring a 9.95, a career high, and the highest score of any Husker on Saturday.
“What we tried to do is stay true to our training and focus on the ‘Letting it Shine’ for other people type thing,” Houchin said, referring to Nebraska’s theme for the meet. “Overall, it was not the best thing to do, to have falls, obviously, but everyone else knew her role when it came to who was next and who had to still go.”
No, the Huskers didn’t make it easy on themselves, Kendig admitted. But that, sometimes, makes victory that much more rewarding, that much more special.
“You’ve got to be ready for the next thing,” Kendig said, “and I think we did a great job of doing that today.”
Now, the next thing is the NCAA Championships, April 14-15.
Hey, if Connecticut can lose after 111 straight wins in women’s basketball …
“It’s sports. I think anything’s possible,” Kendig said. “We’re going to go down and give it our best shot in St. Louis.”
Reach Brian at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @GBRosenthal.