Photo by Pat Radigan
Column by Pat Radigan
Growing up, I was the absolute worst kind of sports fan.
I was the type of viewer that ESPN had wrapped around their finger, and spent far too much time worrying about what I knew about sports instead of simply enjoying them. Even worse, I was the type who was quick to dismiss ‘non-revenue’ sports, without realizing the Worldwide Leader was just keeping me tuned in.
It wasn’t until I got to Nebraska that I started to see the light, and my gateway was Husker volleyball.
No. 12 NU vs. No. 8 Michigan
Early control of the Big Ten title race will be decided on Saturday in Lincoln.
- WHERE: Devaney Center
- WHEN: Saturday, 7:30 p.m.
- UPDATES: @huskers_W
- STATS: Click here
Starting at the Coliseum, I got to experience an atmosphere unlike anything I’d ever seen before at a game. A little more than 4,000 Husker fans, with such an intense passion and focus that it spilled over onto the court. It was such an advantage, many were worried about the prospect of affecting NU’s home-court advantage with a move to Devaney.
Not surprisingly, turning that 4,000 into 8,000 made Devaney a disaster for visiting teams, something we heard over and over again from visiting coaches and players.
Having covered Husker volleyball for the duration of the Devaney Era, I have a new perspective on sports fandom, especially at Nebraska. When people ask me about what it’s like to cover the Huskers, it’s the first thing I bring up. The football fandom is one thing, but it goes beyond that.
It showed up when Husker fans packed the standing room at Devaney for the women’s basketball team’s unbeaten 2009-10 regular season. It’s shown up in the more than 200 consecutive matches that NU fans have sold out for volleyball. And if you asked me, Nebraska gymnastics is one of the next big frontiers for Husker fans to conquer.
As I sat with Husker coach Dan Kendig on the floor of Devaney during practice this week, you could see it in his face as his eyes wandered around the empty arena, and one of Nebraska’s longest tenured coaches got a smile on his face as he couldn’t help but make that same connection.
“Look at being in here for volleyball,” he said. “When all of a sudden, something isn’t going right, the crowd gets up and gets going. It lifts them up, and now all of a sudden volleyball is playing better.”
So how does Kendig see that translating to gymnastics? Cheering fans are obviously an incentive for basically anything, but in the same arena where opponents of Nebraska volleyball routinely crumble as the Huskers thrive, Kendig sees a leg up in Saturday’s Big Ten showdown with No. 8 Michigan.
“I think it’s a huge advantage to have that for your team,” he said. “If I had to pick one event where it makes a real difference, it’s floor.”
And it’s more than just the cheers for stuck landings. When you get enough people focusing on a sport like gymnastics, the small gasps, building cheers and even the response in tense moments can be a game-changer. Kendig knows it, and the athletes can feel it.
“They feed off that energy, and then the next one wants that same thing, it’s a snowball effect,” Kendig said. “And if they’re just down a little bit, that crowd can lift them up to another level.”
This past weekend, 4,443 fans piled into Devaney to watch the Husker women and the top-ranked men’s gymnastics squad compete at the same time.
On paper, it led to a .750 increase in the team score. After the meet, Kendig said he knew his team had more. But reflecting on it a few days later, the Husker head man couldn’t help but be blown away by the impact of thousands of red-clad supporters.
“Man it was fun to be in that environment on Saturday.”
Now, it’s just the women, and Kendig knows that a big turnout can have a direct impact on how the Huskers hold up in a top 15 matchup.
It’s not just about pulling an upset, though. Saturday is also matchup between the two teams that split last season’s Big Ten regular season title. Both teams are 2-0 in the Big Ten already, and are the only two Big Ten teams in the national ranking. Kendig pointed out that upsets have played a role in recent years, but still was quick to talk about the significance this meet can have in the race for a conference crown.
“Whoever wins this Saturday will be the frontrunner for the Big Ten title, and that’s a big deal,” Kendig said. “We’ve got to take care of business.”
Husker coach Dan Kendig.
Back to how fans can help, and why you should care.
While Michigan has put up big numbers early in the season, Nebraska has a real chance at pulling the upset. But it’s going to take a solid score in all four events, Kendig said, and will most likely come down to the final rotation.
The good news, is that is rotation that has Nebraska on floor exercise, the event Kendig said fans can have a big effect on both teams.
Most people wouldn’t think of gymnastics as a sport where home fans can get in the heads of the visitors. As far as I know, booing and throwing items at the opposing team on beam are not only frowned upon, but illegal. That doesn’t mean the home fans can’t make their mark.
During the rotations where one team is on floor, it becomes the focus of the energy in the arena. There’s music, encouragements from teammates and it all takes place on the 160-square-foot mat that’s located in the center of the floor. At the same time, the other team is on beam, and it’s hard to do anything but nervously watch on and hope the team you are cheering for stays on.
That means that the energy of the floor inevitably spills over into the other team’s effort on beam. On Saturday, Nebraska will be on floor for the final rotation.
“That’s the biggest moment that fans can help,” Kendig said. “Your opponent is on an event 4-inches wide, and they have a tendency to watch,. You can still hear the noise of the crowd, regardless of if you’re focusing on yourself. If you see a routine and the crowd went crazy, you know they’re doing well.”
Let’s review what we’ve learned so far: 1) When Husker fans pack Devaney, it makes a tangible impact. 2) Two of the best women’s gymnastics teams in the country will be fighting for control of a conference title race, and 3) Nebraska fans can directly impact that pivotal meet at the most important moment.
I guess the only question that remains is… Where are you going to park?