The new kid on the women's gymnastics block, Nebraska - home of four male 1988 Olympians and the '88 NCAA men's championship trophy - comes into this evening's NCAA Midwest Regional at the Huntsman Center as the top-ranked team, rated second in the nation.
And, despite the oddball scoring of this season, Coach Rick Walton's 'Huskers may indeed be the cream of the Midwest, better than six-time national champion Utah, which has finished no lower than second nationally for the last nine years."I think Nebraska is going to get them," says Oklahoma Coach Becky Buwick, whose Sooners split with Utah but lost twice this season to Nebraska.
The 'Huskers scored 193.60 in their last dual meet to take over the first seed from Utah, which has a season best of 192.80.
"Surprise!" said Buwick. "I was surprised myself."
The 'Huskers, Utes, Sooners and Arizona State Sun Devils compete in tonight's 7 p.m. session as the highest seeds. Arizona, Utah State and Brigham Young compete along with individual all-arounders in the 4 p.m. session at the Huntsman.
"I guess we're one of those teams," says Walton, "that's like a Rodney Dangerfield. We've beaten some very good teams, but we always seem to get shoved back in the closet.
"This is a very good team. I don't know how good we'll be Saturday night, but the last four or five meets out, we've been very consistent," Walton says, adding he planned the season that way, escalating difficulty and hoping to peak in the postseason, much as Utah's Greg Marsden coaches his club's advancement.
"They're a better team than Utah if they hit," says Buwick. "Deeper. Awesome. I don't think they're as stylish, but they have great bars, creative beam and good tumbling that is better than Utah's."
Marsden doesn't dispute Nebraska's potential. "They were real good last year, but consistency was a problem. They couldn't stay on beam." Now, he says, with the addition of assistant coach Peggy Liddick, who's noted for work on beam, the 'Huskers seem to have solved their problem.
"They're a pretty mature team now; they seem to be handling themselves better this year," Marsden says.
Walton would agree. "We have a lot of experience, a lot of girls who've been with the program three or four years. They know each other well, and they compete well with each other," he says.
Nebraska, like Utah, doesn't rely on one or two people. It has several specialists and four all-arounders who've broken 38.0 - Michele Bryant (38.90 best), Lisa McCrady (38.90), Angie Burdette (38.60) and Tami Bair (38.25). "We're capable of scoring six-deep for the first time ever," says Walton.
Utah has six good all-arounders - Missy Marlowe (38.75), Patti Massoels (38.65), Jessica Smith (38.40), Shelly Schaerrer (38.35) and Hilarie Portell (38.35), plus specialists Kristi Pinnick (three events) and Sonja Ahone (vault, floor).
Massoels had abdominal pains Thursday but was better Friday. Portell reinjured some pulled muscles in a foot and Schaerrer hurt a knee. Portell and Schaerrer will probably be rested in some events so they'll be ready for nationals April 14-15 at Georgia.
Marsden doesn't exactly concede the regional title. "This is, without a doubt, talent-wise, the best group I've ever had, top to bottom," he says.
"The only thing they have left to do to prove they're a great team is hit at the decisive moment," Marsden says.
Oklahoma suffered a severe setback at the Big 8 Conference meet two weeks ago when Tatiana Figuereido (38.60) broke a bone in a foot. "It's a shame for her," says Buwick, but she adds the Sooners have depth and pluck. "Of course it's going to affect us, but nobody hung their heads. They went around saying, `OK, you've got to do this, and you've got to do that,' and coaching themselves," she said. Cassie Frey (38.80), Tina Gamboa (38.45) and Stephaie Casteel (38.10) are leaders.
Marsden looks for Arizona State to improve its standing, and Buwick likes Arizona, which hasn't had high scores, perhaps because it didn't compete at places where scores have been high all year, Buwick says.
Sun Devil Karli Urban continues strongly (38.90) and is joined by Michelle Colavin (38.35) and Tracy Butler (38.35). Arizona is led by Noelle Schnurpfeil (38.50), Diane Monty, (38.50) and Diana Rendall (38.40).
All of which leaves little breathing room for Utah State and Brigham Young, who, like Arizona, have the misfortune of competing in the afternoon, when scores will probably be held down so they won't get out of hand in the evening session.
BYU freshman Korie Jackman has the best individual all-around score of anyone in this meet - 38.95 - scored a week ago against Utah State. It's the highest score ever by a collegian from Utah, breaking Megan Marsden's record of 38.85 set in 1984. Jackman scored 38.45 March 18 to win the High Country meet to win over Utah's Smith (38.40). Marianne Williams has scored 38.0.
Utah State is led by Tana Davis (38.10), Patty Delaney (37.90) and Cami Card (37.85).
Regional winners automatically advance to the NCAA Championships. The other seven national-field positions are determined by National Qualifying Scores, which are a combination of two-thirds regional score and one-third Regional Qualifying Score. It is important to make the top six at nationals (determined by NQS, not regional place) because those schools participate in the traditionally higher-scoring evening session. No NCAA winner ever came out of the afternoon session.