Shane Wiskus wasn't expecting to cry Friday night. The Gophers senior figured that wouldn't happen until Saturday, on the second and final day of the NCAA men's gymnastics championships.
But when he looked at the Maturi Pavilion scoreboard and saw the Gophers in third place, the tears flowed anyway. The Gophers rallied in the final two events of Friday's qualifying session to advance to Saturday's team finals, giving them one more day to compete together before the program shuts down. Wiskus, their senior star, led the way with a career-best performance and will try for his first NCAA all-around title Saturday.
The top three teams in each of Friday's two qualifiers will compete for the team crown. Stanford won the evening session with a score of 413.855, followed by Michigan with 411.455 and the Gophers with a season-best 404.623. Nebraska (408.623), Oklahoma (406.190) and Illinois (400.721) advanced from the afternoon session.
Wiskus, of Spring Park, energized a team that had struggled all season. He recorded a career-high all-around score of 86.464, topping the standings by more than 4½ points over Iowa's Evan Davis. His score of 15.100 on floor exercise also was a career best, and he earned the highest scores of the evening session on floor, parallel bars and vault to help the Gophers overcome a wobbly performance on rings.
"I'm on another planet right now, I'm so happy,'' Wiskus said. "I'm so proud of my team for rallying in those last two events. We knew we could do it, and we made it happen.''
Coach Mike Burns also was emotional. The Gophers learned last fall that their program would be cut following the season, and they dealt with a rash of injuries through the winter. Wiskus, a contender for this summer's Tokyo Olympics, moved to Colorado Springs to train.
The team pushed away the sadness Friday, coming through with season-high team scores on floor exercise (68.832), high bar (67.464) and vault (71.698). They sat in fifth place after rings, with two rotations to go. Their gritty performances on vault and parallel bars earned the last berth in the finals by 2.267 points over Penn State.
"I'm so proud of these guys,'' Burns said. "After pommel horse and rings, it was looking a little bleak. But there were still a lot of gymnastics left.
"To make the memories these guys made for themselves, and for Gophers athletics and Gophers gymnastics, I don't know if you could have written a better script.''
Wiskus moved to the Olympic training center in Colorado Springs last November, because of uncertainty about the training environment at the U after the program is no longer a varsity sport. He returned for the Big Ten championships two weeks ago, tying for the all-around crown and winning titles on floor exercise, parallel bars and high bar. But he was unable to carry the Gophers in the team competition, where they placed sixth of seven teams.
That meet "got out the jitters,'' Wiaskus said. Since then, the Gophers made some lineup changes, got healthier and grew more confident as they polished their routines.
They started on high bar Friday with big performances from Wiskus and sophomore Donte McKinney. The Gophers were in third place after floor exercise, but pommel horse — their lowest-scoring event all season — and some uncharacteristic mistakes on rings bumped them down to fifth.
Burns began doing the math in his head, knowing the Gophers would finish with two of their best events. All five Gophers scored well on vault to move back into third place, and Burns tried to keep them calm as they finished up on parallel bars.
"I'm really excited about how our guys just stuck to it the whole time,'' he said. "There was so much drama in that meet.''
He and Wiskus are expecting even more drama — and lots more tears — on Saturday.
"It's just going to be an emotional roller coaster, through and through,'' Wiskus said. "Our only goals are to be better than we were today. And if we do that, maybe we can come home with a trophy.''