By Brian Rosenthal / Huskers.com
A hit here, a stick there.
That's likely what will determine the winner of the men’s gymnastics Big Ten Championships, which begin Friday at 7 p.m. (BTN, BTN2GO) with the team and all-around finals in Champaign, Illinois.
To that end, the most consistent team figures to rise to the top, which is why Nebraska coach Chuck Chmelka likes his team’s chances.
Of the seven teams vying for the Big Ten title, Chmelka honestly believes his Huskers have been the most steady.
That hasn’t been the case in recent seasons.
So what’s different about this group?
“Honestly, I think it’s because we’ve worked harder at it,” senior Austin Epperson said. “We put pressure on ourselves every day to make sure we do hits. Prior to this year, that hasn’t been a huge emphasis.”
Coaches and gymnasts have tried creating a more competitive feeling to practices. That’s especially been true since a meet at Iowa a couple of weeks ago, when Nebraska, coming off victories over Iowa and Penn State at home, didn’t meet expectations.
Nebraska bounced back with a season-high score of 425.550 in a home dual with Minnesota. That's currently the fourth-highest score in the country. And even though the Gophers edged Nebraska on Senior Night, the Huskers gleaned much confidence in their final tune-up for the postseason.
“Since Iowa, things have been different in that people aren’t as satisfied with just hit routines,” junior Chris Stephenson said. “Everybody wants that stuck dismount, everybody wants perfectly-executed routines.”
Stephenson said gymnasts have been focusing on taking any instruction from teammates in search for any kind of improvement that could result in just the slightest improvement of scores.
“Even if it’s just a few tenths more,” Stephenson said. “If everybody can contribute another two-tenths more out of their routines, that could be make or break for us.”
Nebraska, ranked No. 6 nationally, is trying for its first Big Ten title since joining the conference prior to the 2012 season. The Huskers haven’t won a conference championship since 1994, when they won the Big Eight title.
Past Big Ten meets have had clear frontrunners and teams that obviously would have a difficult time finishing higher than sixth or seventh.
That’s not the case now.
“This year, everybody’s really close,” Chemlka said. “It’s going to be an epic battle. We’re up for the challenge.”
Illinois, Ohio State and Minnesota are ranked ahead of Nebraska. The Huskers have split with Iowa and Penn State in duals and twice narrowly lost to Minnesota. If there’s a team that’s somewhat unpredictable, Chmelka said, it’s Michigan.
“Michigan has been kind of the weird team," he said. "They, on paper, are really good, but they’re doing not very good. With that said, I’m still worried about them. They could come to life and get going.”
Chmelka backs up his claim of Nebraska being the most consistent team by pointing out scores that have been steady, and not as varied as some other teams. Hit percentages have been solid all season, too.
“Like we’ve talked about all year, we’ve got to keep our head in the game," Chmelka said. "The only thing we do have control over is our gymnastics. Hit, do the best to hit your dismount; if you can’t, take a small step, score as high as we can and move on to the next event.”
Simply knowing the field is wide-open gives Nebraska a boost, too.
“I think for us, it gives us tremendous confidence to know that we can be ‘the team.' " Chmelka said. "Before, our team, we were prepared, but we would be watching, we’d be looking around. Then you’d see a big score, and you go, ‘Oh, boy. There’s Ohio State, or there’s somebody killing it.’
"Now, those other teams have to be wary of us.”
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