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By Randy York
So Nebraska's going to Salt Lake City April 7 as the NCAA's No. 5 overall seed and the No. 1 seed in a regional that includes host Utah, one of the most consistently competitive programs in all of college women's gymnastics. Most years, news like that would be cause for trepidation, but this year, without one ounce of cockiness, the Huskers have the confidence, character, courage and chemistry to view this challenge like a country western singer: They just can't wait to get on the road again, and why shouldn't they feel that way? Earlier this month, NU sophomore Jamie Schleppenbach led the Huskers to a narrow 197.600-197.450 win over Utah before 14,000 fans at the same Huntsman Center in which Nebraska will perform the weekend after next. Winning in Salt Lake is like winning every Twelfth of Never. In other words, it might happen every decade or so. The Utes are that good, but then again, Nebraska has been that good on the road in this remarkable season following a fourth-place NCAA finish last April.
The Huskers' amazing upset in Salt Lake City isn't an isolated incident that triggered fellow coaches from all over the country to text a congratulations to Nebraska Coach Dan Kendig's cell phone. It's part of a season-long Husker sweep that includes road wins at No. 2 Oklahoma, No. 8 Utah, No. 10 Arkansas, No. 12 Ohio State (at Big Ten), No. 13 Penn State (at Big Ten) and No. 17 Minnesota (the Huskers also beat No. 14 Denver in Lincoln). "Yes, we're unbeaten on the road this year," Kendig said Monday afternoon before knocking on wood. "This team has embraced the road since the start of the season, and they're still embracing it now. It seems like wherever they go, nothing rattles them. They've blown up one meet this year (against Missouri in Lincoln) and came back the next weekend to win at Oklahoma like the home loss didn't even happen. They've been confident and courageous the whole season. They seem to love the challenge of going on the road."
The Huskers relish the challenge because they have a team that keeps making history. Last weekend at Iowa City, for example, they won their first Big Ten Championship in their first year in the league. They set that goal a year earlier when they said goodbye to the Big 12 Conference with another championship effort at Missouri. Kendig is one coach who appreciates historical bookends. His teams did, after all, win the last three Big Eight championships in Nebraska's last three years in that league, then won the first three Big 12 championships in their first three years in that league. "I tell our kids all the time that everybody wants to win the conference championship," he said, "but it all depends on what you do with your time, what you do with your sacrifices and what you do with everything else it takes to win a championship. This team has embraced that whole mindset. We worked hard last year to finish fourth nationally, but honestly, we've worked even harder this year."
Nebraska finished second in last year's NCAA Regional in Corvallis, Ore., before surprising everyone with the Huskers' best national finish in 23 varsity sports last year. Monday's national rankings placed Nebraska fifth behind Florida, Oklahoma, UCLA and Alabama and ahead of No. 6 Georgia. The NCAA Semifinals, Super Six Finals and Individual Event Finals are set for Friday, Saturday and Sunday - April 20, 21 an 22 - at Duluth, Ga. That weekend is Nebraska's projected season finale for its successful "On the Road Again Tour" that does not include a single loss yet. So if you would, please knock on wood whenever you mention that to anybody.
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