Of all the top teams, Nebraska gets the least notoriety. They don’t often attract the big name or elite gymnasts, and (competing in the Big 12 until this year) they haven’t had the conference rivalries and built-in strength of schedule that give a team both identity and national attention. With the rise of Oklahoma’s program, there was a budding opportunity for a strong, attention-getting rivalry between two of the best teams, but Nebraska’s move to the Big 10 limits that a little. I still would like that rivalry to be cultivated, though, and seeing the two schools competing in a quad meet this year is a bit disappointing. The presence of other teams (especially lower ranked ones) tends to mitigate the atmosphere and excitement of a rivalry.
Nebraska was able to beat both Florida and Utah in national semifinals last year by sticking landings and not giving away unnecessary tenths, even if they didn’t have the biggest difficulty or reputation. This attitude and tenacity will have to continue in 2012 because there are significant questions about the depth of the team and how that depth will or will not be able to overcome some of their weaknesses, namely the beam.
As seen in the discussion of beam strength, Nebraska was the weakest of the top 10 last year when competing after a fall on the beam. At championships, their highest score on beam was a 9.800. In Super Six, they were competitive with third place Oklahoma on three events, but ended up .5 lower solely because of the beam. With no standout performers and only 4 returners to the lineup, they will need to find bigger scores on this event from somewhere in this incoming freshman class.
There are five new freshmen this year, but the clear standout in the bunch is Jessie DeZiel. Six months ago, she would have been considered just another one of the new L10s and wouldn’t have received much attention at all. But after making the elite push to compete at Visa Championships in her home state, DeZiel found herself on the Pan Am team and performed very well. In true gymnastics fan fashion, the narrative about DeZiel went from the condescension of “Aww, isn’t that sweet” when she made championships to the overreaction of “She’s the best gymnast on the Pan Am team” after she performed so well. To be clear, she was not the best gymnast on a Pan Am team that included Shawn Johnson, Bridget Sloan, and Bridgette Caquatto (and she would be completely overlooked if she continued elite), but she did perform with exceptional poise and confidence in Guadalajara, which will serve her very well in NCAA. Also, her Yurchenko double full is really quite excellent. They will need her anchoring that event and replacing Erin Davis’s score.
In addition to DeZiel, Nebraska is bringing in Kailyn Hawkins, Amanda and Jennifer Lauer, and Desire’ (That’s an apostrophe, not a smudge) Stephens, all of whom are scholarship athletes and can be expected to contend for lineups. Of this group, Hawkins has the biggest skill set.
Even though Nebraska is bringing in these five new freshman, the team is still smaller than most, having lost Erin Davis (she of the 10 on vault), Brittnee Habbib, Maria Scaffidi, and Maddie Steinauer — leaving them with 2 or 3 spots to fill on every event. With 13 total gymnasts, including some non-competers, they will not have the 10-11 competitive routines on each event that many of the top schools will have to choose from, meaning they will have to put up a gymnast here and there whose goal is to manage instead of excel.
In fact, much like Michigan, the lack of depth became apparent during a recent scored intrasquad where some of the new freshmen did not show any gymnastics and the team showed only 6 floor routines. Nebraska might be safe enough for routine numbers if they were to keep the whole team healthy, but that never happens to anyone. If they find themselves scraping the gym for routines, it will be down to veterans Lora Evenstad, Janelle Giblin, and Brittany Skinner (along with Jamie Schleppenbach’s vault) to carry the team into 9.9 territory with confidence and make up for some inexperienced scores in these lineups.
Because they have so many competing gymnasts to replace from last year’s team, it’s hard to envision Nebraska having a repeat 4th place performance. The top schools are all trading up, increasing their scoring potential significantly from last year. Nebraska will more likely be in the position of trying to tread water, focusing on replacing the scores they lost from last year instead of improving upon them. They surprised in 2011 during a relatively weak year across the nation, but it will take an even bigger effort to do it again in 2012.