By Brian Rosenthal / Huskers.com
Catelyn Orel has seen the Devaney Sports Center filled to the rafters with boisterous fans, oh, numerous times when Nebraska’s nationally-renown volleyball program plays home matches in the remodeled building.
Orel, a sophomore on the Nebraska women’s gymnastics team, has witnessed how the passionate fan support can overwhelm opposing teams, or sometimes give the Huskers a needed pick-me-up at the most opportune time.
Yes, you’d better believe Orel has envisioned a similar scene someday unfolding for a gymnastics meet.
“Every game,” Orel said with a smile while nodding her head. “Every game.”
Just once, before she graduates, Orel would love to see the Devaney Center packed for a gymnastics meet.
There’s no time better than the present, right?
Nebraska, ranked No. 14 nationally, will host No. 2 LSU, No. 11 Boise State, No. 25 Arizona, Iowa State and Minnesota in the NCAA Lincoln Regional on Saturday at 4 p.m. at the Devaney Sports Center.
This is the first time since 2005 Nebraska has hosted an NCAA gymnastics regional.
“I think gymnastics is a cool sport,” Orel said, “and I think the more fans get educated and the more they really see what we’re doing, and that we are a really good team, that once we get more student involvement, more fan involvement, it’s only going to help us get closer to where we want to be.”
That, of course, is closer to a national championship, something that so far has eluded veteran coach Dan Kendig.
Oh, the Huskers have been close. Kendig still remembers 2003, when Nebraska produced a national champion all-around athlete in Richelle Simpson, yet had a couple of costly falls in the Super Six Finals, where Nebraska finished fourth.
You know what else Kendig remembers from that day? Some 7,500 fans cheering at the Devaney Center – which then seated around 14,000.
“We marched in to that noise and crowd, and it gave our team a lift. It really did,” Kendig said. “Truth be known, we came a whisker away from winning a national championship that year, and that’s the flat-out truth.”
Kendig practically burst into tears that day when he heard the line to buy walk-up tickets snaked out the Devaney Center doors and onto Court Street. For Saturday, nearly 2,000 reserved tickets have been sold, and tickets starting at $5 can be purchased at 1-800-8-BIGRED or by visiting Huskers.com/Tickets.
Saturday’s meet qualifies teams for the NCAA Championships in two weeks in St. Louis. The top two teams advance, and Nebraska, in something of a rarity, is the No. 3 seed in its home regional.
Yet another reason for Nebraska fans to step up and make a difference – Nebraska has advanced to the NCAA Championships 18 times in 23 years under Kendig.
“I like our chances,” Kendig said, knowing that 7,500 fans this time would actually fill Devaney as it’s configured for gymnastics. “We are at home, but we still have to come out and do our job, and a big crowd would help us take this up over the top.”
For those who have never been to a gymnastics meet, here’s something of a misnomer: You don’t come to quietly sit on your hands.
On the contrary, loud, passionate fans can impact gymnastics events as much as they do in swinging momentum when things look dire against Russ Rose and Penn State.
“It makes a difference for the judges as well,” Orel said. “The crowd gets excited, we get excited and the judges think, ‘Oh, wow, that was really good,’ and it kind of convinces them to jump up that score. It really makes a difference on our result and it helps us with our confidence. It makes a world of difference.”
You can literally see the goosebumps form on Orel’s arms as she talks.
“This meet is the most important meet of the season,” she said. “This could make or break our season. We need everybody’s support that we can.”
And you know what? Orel isn’t even competing, yet this is how revved-up the injured multi-event athlete is for Saturday. She’s sixth months post-op from an Achilles tear she suffered on the takeoff of her double pike practicing her floor exercise.
For gymnastics rookies, don’t let that terminology scare you away from the sport. It matters not if you know a Yurchenko from a Yugo. Simply show up, and cheer loudly on jumps and landings.
“It gives the team an appreciation for the hard work they’ve put in,” Kendig said. “A crowd like that can be the difference to help push us over the top to get to where we need to go.”
College gymnastics is increasing in popularity coming off an Olympic year; Kendig noted that the second-hardest ticket to find at each Olympics is women’s gymnastics, that after the Opening Ceremonies.
“College gymnastics this year has risen to a level I have never seen," he said. "We have Olympians on teams, we have national team members on teams. We have athletes on not just one or two teams, we have athletes on numerous teams who are doing great things. It’s like a big boom, and I love it. It makes us all work harder, obviously.”
LSU, the No. 2 team in the nation, boasts a star-studded lineup that includes freshman McKenna Kelley. She’s the daughter of Mary Lou Retton, the gold medal winner in the all-around in the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics.
The Tigers also have senior Ashleigh Gnat, whose father, Ray, was an All-American gymnast for LSU, and mother, Joan, was a member of the 1972 U.S. Olympics gymnastics team.
LSU will also bring something else to Lincoln – fans from the area who’ve adopted the Tigers during College World Series trips.
Kendig welcomes those fans with open arms.
“More fans is more fans," he said, "but we want our fans, too.”
Reach Brian at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter @GBRosenthal.