The preseason No. 12 Nebraska women’s gymnastics team returns to action in 2017 looking to return to the NCAA Super Six Finals for the first time since 2014. The Cornhuskers, who open their season Sunday afternoon with a dual meet against Penn State, return 10 letterwinners from last year’s team that finished eighth overall, and complement the deep group of upperclassmen with five talented newcomers.
Nebraska was picked second in the Big Ten Preseason Coaches' Poll, while senior Jennie Laeng and sophomore Sienna Crouse were named to the Big Ten Gymnasts to Watch list.
NU must replace six-time All-American Hollie Blanske, but four All-Big Ten performers return in 2017.
“I think our outlook is kind of the same as it is year in and year out: to take things one meet at a time,” Nebraska Head Coach Dan Kendig said. “I think we’ve just got to focus on each and every practice, each and every week, and try to do things to maximize our ability and worry about what we need to do. I believe that, obviously, unless outside circumstances occur, injuries or who knows what, we’ll be where we need to be at the end of the year.”
The Huskers' schedule features the always-tough Big Ten slate in addition to a non-conference visit to defending NCAA champion Oklahoma. The Huskers will host four meets at the Devaney Center this season, including the NCAA Lincoln Regional on April 1.
Talented Newcomers Complement Strong Group of Returners
The Big Red roster features a good mix of upperclassmen and fresh faces in 2017. Two seniors and three juniors will look to provide leadership and experience to the team this season, while three sophomores will look to take the next step. Three redshirt freshmen and four true freshmen will try to break into the lineups for the first time in hopes of helping Nebraska back to the NCAA Championships this season.
Laeng and Ashley Lambert, Nebraska's two seniors, plan to provide leadership to the Huskers in 2017 in addition to their prominent roles in multiple lineups. One of Nebraska’s most consistent performers as a junior, Laeng earned second-team All-Big Ten honors after winning 12 individual event titles in 2016. A second-team All-American on floor in 2015, Lambert battled injuries as a junior, but still managed to post career highs on bars and beam last season. Lambert is a strong vaulter who became the first Husker to hit perfect 10s on the same event in back-to-back weeks when she scored a pair of 10s on vault in 2015.
Three talented juniors will also be featured in Nebraska’s lineups, with each possessing all-around experience. Grace Williams earned first-team All-Big Ten honors in 2016, earning 13 individual event titles, including Big Ten and NCAA Regional co-championships on beam. Williams performed in the all-around in 11 of 13 meets last season, posting career highs on three events and in the all-around. She figures to anchor Nebraska’s beam lineups in 2017. Danielle Breen came on strong as an all-arounder in the second half of 2016, earning six individual event titles including a pair of all-around crowns. She was named second-team All-Big Ten for her efforts, which included a second-place finish in the all-around at the Big Ten Championships. Breen posted career highs on all four events and in the all-around as a sophomore.
Abbie Epperson joins the Huskers in 2017 as a transfer from Maryland, where she was a two-time NCAA Regional qualifier. She will be eligible to compete as a junior this season, and figures to be featured in multiple lineups. Epperson has strong Husker ties, as both of her parents were Husker gymnasts, and her brother, Austin, is a senior on the Nebraska men’s gymnastics team.
Three Huskers return as sophomores, looking to take the next step in 2017. Crouse put forth strong performances as the season went along, earning Big Ten all-championship team honors for her performance on bars at the conference meet. She also tied for third on floor at the NCAA Iowa City Regional, helping Nebraska earn a berth in the NCAA Championships. Crouse is a strong candidate on vault, bars and floor in 2017 and could see action as an all-arounder. Catelyn Orel was the lone freshman to compete on all four events and in the all-around in 2016, and picked up her first event title as a Husker in the process. Megan Schweihofer competed on vault and beam in every meet as a freshman, and looks to reach new heights in 2017. Schweihofer won three individual event titles last season, and posted the top vault score for Nebraska at the NCAA Regional. She figures to fit into both lineups as a sophomore, and will be looked upon to be an all-around contributor as well.
Three Huskers redshirted last season and look to break into the lineups in 2017. Kelli Chung was sidelined by an elbow injury in 2016, but is healthy and could contribute on multiple events as a redshirt freshman. Two others, Megan Kuo and Kami Shows, saw exhibition action last season. Kuo earned a pair of midseason exhibition spots on beam, and is in strong consideration for multiple lineups in 2017. Shows performed in exhibition twice on bars and once on beam last season, and is in the running to fit into those lineups as a redshirt freshman.
Four freshmen will join the Nebraska program this season hoping to contribute to an NCAA Championship run in 2017. Sierra Hassel joins the Huskers from Johnston, Iowa, and could break into multiple lineups as a freshman. Taylor Houchin, from Republic, Mo., comes to Nebraska following an impressive club career in which she won the all-around title at the J.O. National Championships in 2016. She is in the running to see action on all four events as a freshman and has all-around potential for this season and beyond. Alexa Clark is a freshman from Golden, Colo., and will look to provide strong depth on each event this season. Laura Oh, from Shoreview, Minn., will also look to add depth to the Husker lineups in 2017.
Kendig returns for his 24th season at the helm of the program, looking to lead his team back to the NCAA Championships for a 19th time. He will be joined by associate head coach Heather Brink, the 2000 NCAA all-around and vault champion, who is in her second year in her current role and sixth as a member of the Nebraska staff. Assistant coach Dan Miller also returns for his sixth year at Nebraska. Kendig oversees the bars squad, while Miller is in charge of vault and floor and Brink coaches the beam lineup.
Schedule Highlighted by NCAA Regional
NU’s schedule is highlighted by four home events, including the NCAA Lincoln Regional in early April. The Huskers open the season on Jan. 15, hosting Big Ten rival Penn State. The meet is a part of the Tumble N’ Rumble, as the Nebraska wrestling team will welcome Michigan to the Devaney Center. Both events are scheduled to begin simultaneously at 1 p.m.
The Huskers will then hit the road to face Rutgers on Jan. 21 in a quadrangular meet with Brown and West Chester. The following week, NU will face defending Big Ten champion Michigan at the Crisler Center in Ann Arbor, Mich. The Huskers knocked off the third-ranked Wolverines by a score of 196.775-196.550 in a dual meet last season at the Devaney Center.
In early February, the Huskers will travel to Norman, Okla., to take on former Big Eight rival and defending national champion Oklahoma. Denver and Texas Woman’s University also will compete at the quadrangular meet, which takes place Feb. 3.
That same weekend, the Huskers will return home to face Big Ten foe Iowa on Feb. 5.
The Huskers will travel to Minnesota on Feb. 11 to take on the defending Big Ten regular-season champion Golden Gophers. The following week, NU will head to St. Charles, Mo., for a quad meet with Lindenwood, Brown and Seattle Pacific, scheduled for Feb. 17.
The 27th-annual Masters Classic will take place on Feb. 25, as the Huskers welcome California, Southeast Missouri and Utah State. The Golden Bears finished seventh nationally last season, while the Huskers took down Utah State in a quad meet in 2016. NU has not faced Southeast Missouri since 1997. It will also be the final regular-season home meet of the season, as Nebraska will honor seniors Laeng and Lambert for their contributions to the program as part of its Senior Night celebration.
NU will travel to Champaign, Ill., on March 11 for the B1G Five qualifier, as the Huskers will battle with Illinois, Michigan State, Ohio State and Maryland for seeding in the next week’s Big Ten Championships. The 2017 Big Ten Championships are set for March 18 in New Brunswick, N.J.
The Huskers will host six teams at the 2017 NCAA Lincoln Regional, which is set for April 1 at the Devaney Center. NU last hosted a regional in the 2005 season. The top two teams from the regional will qualify for the NCAA Championships, which take place April 14-15 in St. Louis.
Huskers Look to Vault to New Heights in 2017
The Huskers return most of their talented vault lineup from last season, but must find a way to replace Blanske’s strong and consistent scores on the event. Laeng and Lambert should be mainstays in the vault lineup this season, with Laeng posting four vault titles last season and Lambert owning a pair of 10s on the event in her career. Breen and Williams should also be in the vault lineup this season. Breen didn’t vault in competition until the Masters Classic last February, but proceeded to win the event and post solid scores the rest of the way. Schweihofer figures to slot into the vault lineup as well, but the final spot is up for grabs. Orel gained valuable experience on vault last season, while Chung or one of the other talented freshmen could be featured in the lineup in 2017. Blanske won first-team All-America honors and the Big Ten championship on vault in 2016, but the Huskers should field a strong vault lineup once again.
“The optimistic thing for us going into this season is, we simply have more bodies and more depth on vault this season,” Miller said. “This summer, the girls have put forth a great effort, so as they say, ‘so far so good,’ and we’ll see how that carries through. Right now, simply having more bodies and an attitude of wanting to improve and willing to upgrade their vaulting is pretty exciting for me as a coach.”
NU’s Bars Squad Will Be Solid Again
Uneven bars will again be a strong area for the Huskers, with multiple veterans on the event returning in 2017. Laeng should lead the way on bars, as she is healthy from an injury she suffered on the event at the NCAA Championships last season. She was the co-champion on bars at the 2015 Big Ten Championships. Breen, Crouse, Lambert and Orel are strong contenders for the bars lineups in 2017, as each scored above 9.85 last season. Orel posted the Huskers’ top bars score at the NCAA Championships. Williams was in the bar lineups in every meet in 2016. The Huskers must look to replace the consistency of Blanske and Madison McConkey, but Epperson, Schweihofer and Shows could slot into the bars lineups at different points this season. Hassel and Houchin also bring strong bars experience from their club careers.
“We lost two bar workers to graduation, but having said that, I believe there’s more depth on bars right now than we’ve had in a while,” Kendig said. “I think at the end of the day, we’ll have six pretty good bar workers. Even with some of the injuries we’ve had, I still feel like our depth is pretty good on bars.”
Nebraska Hopes to Dazzle on Beam This Season
The Huskers were one of the top beam squads in the country last season, and the potential is there for NU to have another strong beam lineup in 2017. The Huskers must replace the solid routines that Blanske and McConkey gave throughout their careers, but Williams and Breen should pick up the slack, with each scoring above 9.90 in 2016. Williams earned eight individual event titles on beam a season ago, while Breen picked up three beam titles of her own. Laeng, Orel and Schweihofer figure to fit into the beam lineups this season, and Lambert and Epperson bring experience in the event. Kuo and Shows both provided exhibition routines on beam last season, and the quartet of freshmen should provide valuable depth on the event this season.
“Beam has been consistently probably the event with the most depth on it on a yearly basis,” Brink said. “We lost Maddie and Hollie, and having that maturity and experience is going to be something that we have to look to fill. How that develops this season is going to be how the ball gets rolling this year, and hopefully we start out on a strong foot and beam can be the event that can help make a difference.”
Huskers Look to Finish Strong on Floor Exercise
The Huskers’ floor lineup is packed with potential heading into the 2017 season. Gone is Blanske, who won two All-America awards on floor in her career, but seven Huskers who provided floor routines return in 2016 and multiple newcomers could contribute as well. Lambert was an All-American on floor in 2015, but injuries hampered her success in 2016. She looks to bring a powerful routine to the lineup this season. Williams and Laeng each earned event titles on floor last season, while Breen, Orel, Schweihofer and Crouse return experience on the event. Epperson is also a strong contender on the event, as are each of the four freshmen.
“It will be nice having Ashley back in the lineup her senior year,” Miller said. “She’s very explosive, very powerful on floor. She’s got a great routine, gets the crowd energized, so if we can keep her healthy, I think that’s going to be a great asset. We lost Hollie, but the team is working hard and I think the transition is going to be good. Hopefully we’ll have a great floor crew this year.”