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Tom Miller / Forum Communications Co., Published April 18 2012

Grand Forks tandem is key to Nebraska's NCAA gymnastics tournament run

GRAND FORKS – University of Nebraska gymnastics coach Dan Kendig catches himself after realizing the lengthy string of praises he heaped on Emily Wong and Lora Evenstad.

“They’re tough for me to talk about,” Kendig says sarcastically.

Kendig’s glowing reports of the two former Grand Forks gymnasts flow naturally, which makes sense. After all, the pair’s performance this weekend will go a long way in Nebraska’s hopes of capturing its first national title.

Evenstad, a senior, and Wong, a sophomore, led the Cornhuskers to a Big Ten title in the school’s first year in the league. Wong won the Big Ten all-around crown, while Evenstad won the Big Ten bars title and tied with Wong and teammate Jessie DeZiel for the floor title.

Wong and Evenstad then led the Huskers to a second-place finish at the NCAA Regionals in Salt Lake City. Now, Wong and Evenstad are after the ultimate prize – a national title for Nebraska, even though the school has never finished better than fourth.

“Anything above fourth would be great, but we want to go all the way,” said Evenstad, who went to school at East Grand Forks Sacred Heart.

The Huskers will take their shot beginning Friday in Duluth, Ga., at the NCAA championships. No. 6 Nebraska joins UCLA, Oklahoma, Utah, Stanford and LSU in the first semifinal. The second semifinal consists of Florida, Alabama, Georgia, Arkansas, Oregon State and Ohio State.

The top three teams from each semifinal qualify for the Super Six, which determines the national champion. The Super Six airs live Sunday on ESPN3 and on tape delay on ESPNU.

“Our goal is the Super Six,” said Wong, who attended Grand Forks Red River. “This season we have the possibility of winning the national championship. It’s going to take us utilizing each and every day we have to focus on ourselves in practice. Then we have to go out and have fun.”

Kendig, who has been at the helm of the Huskers for 19 seasons, thinks a national title is an attainable goal. His Huskers finished fourth a year ago. As head coach, he’s been to the Super Six Finals 10 times.

“It’s going to take Nebraska to be at its best,” he said. “We’re not afraid of anybody. There are talented teams out there, don’t get me wrong. We can’t have an OK meet. It’s got to be a great meet, no question. But we’re capable of doing it. If we’re at our best, I like our chances.”

It’s also going to take big scores from Wong and Evenstad, who competed together at Red River Valley Gymnastics.

Wong, who represented the Huskers gymnasts and their Big Ten title by throwing out the ceremonial first pitch at a Nebraska baseball game earlier this season, enters the NCAA championships after winning the beam title at the NCAA regionals in Salt Lake City.

“You could win a national championship with a team of Emily Wongs,” Kendig said. “I say that because nobody outworks her. No one has a better attitude every day. She’s also an incredible student. She’s as good as she is because of who she is.”

Tom Miller is a reporter for the Grand Forks Herald, a Forum Communications Co. newspaper