RALEIGH, N.C. -- While the Penn State gymnasts were dancing and singing along to "YMCA," Nebraska's team sat in silence -- its gymnasts' faces covered in tears.
Penn State had failed to finish in the top two at its regional championship meets and advance to the NCAA National Championships the last two seasons by less than a tenth of a point.
But on Saturday night at the NCAA Regional Championships at Reynolds Coliseum in Raleigh, N.C., the team advanced to nationals for the first time since 2005, and junior Brandi Personett, Steve Shephard, Jess Bastardi and Randy Monahan were named NCAA Northeast Region gymnast, head coach and co-coaches of the year, respectively.
"My initial reaction is relief," Shephard said. "It's been a monkey on our back. Last year we were less than a tenth of a point from qualifying. It's very disappointing to end the season that way. It's just heartbreaking. You put your heart and soul into something and you don't qualify so this year qualifying it's just a huge relief, and I'm so proud of this team."
The Nittany Lions finished second with a score of 195.800, and will advance to Lincoln, Neb., along with No. 1 Georgia, which won the meet with a dominating 197.700. Penn State edged Nebraska (195.450) for the last spot. The Cornhuskers failed to advance to the meet that they will host in two weeks.
The first two events for Penn State were a struggle as it failed to score 49.000 on both bars and beam. Juniors Alexandra Brockway and Personett were able to tie for eighth place on bars with scores of 9.825, and Personett tied for ninth on beam with a 9.800.
"Everyday in practice even when we're having trouble we tell ourselves even if we get ourselves in a hole we need to just think positive and we can get ourselves out," Brockway said.
Going into floor the Lions found themselves in a deep hole. They were in fourth place and .625 points out of the all-important second spot.
Coming off a bye, the Lions came out and appeared like they had forgotten about their early struggles. Their smiles were back to pre-meet form, and the silenced Penn State fans were back to making noise.
The team nailed a 49.225, which outscored the Cornhuskers score on bars by .650 putting Penn State in second place by a narrow .025.
Personett tied for second with former United States Olympian Courtney Kupets of Georgia with a 9.900, and freshman Whitney Bencsko tied for fifth with a 9.875. Personett also finished second in the all-around to Kupets.
"We were just thinking positive," Brockway said. "We weren't looking at the scores, we were just focusing on the good things to come and they did, they came."
The Lions found themselves in an all-too-familiar spot, a chance at competing for a national championship coming down to the last event.
"Juniors kind of looked at each other without saying anything and we were like no way this is happening again, losing by .05 because it was that close." junior Casey Rohrbaugh said.
They responded with a score of 49.250, led by Bencsko and Rohrbaugh with a tie for fourth place with a 9.875.
The performance on vault wrapped up the meet for Penn State and Nebraska. The Lions and Cornhuskers both finished the meet on a bye.
Nebraska, already edged by Penn State, knew its fate. Georgia had the meet in hand with a commanding lead.
Penn State was forced to watch as Georgia, West Virginia, North Carolina and host North Carolina State concluded the meet. The Lions would accomplish their goal if none of the latter three teams recorded uncharacteristically high scores on their final events.
"Finally," junior Casey Rohrbaugh said. "Our whole team, especially the juniors who've been through it twice not making it. Finally, it's deserved. It's well deserved. When it was finally announced it's just like a breath of fresh air."