Men’s swim team eyes second straight Big Ten championship

by Ryan Schuster

In 1926, Babe Ruth led the American League in home runs with 47, Calvin Coolidge was president and television hadn’t been invented yet. It was also the last time the Gophers men’s swimming team won the Big Ten title.
It took 70 years for Minnesota to win the conference championship again. Last year, the Gophers ended Michigan’s 10-year stranglehold on the conference. The team then placed 12th at the NCAA Championships.
Half a year later, the team still remembers its unexpected upset of the Wolverines, but the memory is tempered by the difficult task it will face this season.
Minnesota lost four seniors from last year’s team, including 1995 National Diver of the Year P.J. Bogart, and All-America swimmers Bernie Zeruhn and Derek Williams.
“One freshman can’t replace guys like Bogart, Zeruhn and Williams,” said Dennis Dale, men’s swimming and diving coach. “But, two freshmen can take the place of … the caliber of those guys.”
The Gophers still should be competitive this season in the Big Ten. Minnesota is ranked 13th in Speedo America’s Top 25 preseason swimming poll, behind No. 4 Michigan and ahead of No. 19 Indiana, No. 22 Ohio State and No. 23 Iowa in the conference.
“We can win the Big Ten again this year,” Dale said. “But, we lost heavily through graduation last season. We plan to be competitive and in the thick of things.”
The team returns 12 swimmers who were individual Big Ten finalists and eight who have been individual NCAA champions.
“My goals are to finish in the top 10 in the NCAA’s, to be in the top 3 at Big Tens and to have a team (grade-point average) of 3.0 or better,” Dale said. “Last year we had some unforeseen injuries and were disappointed at the NCAA’s. We’ll just have to see if the inexperienced guys mature as the season goes along. They also have to demonstrate that they’re good students, too.”
Minnesota only returns two seniors on this year’s squad, and the team has 11 incoming freshmen hoping to make an impact.
Senior tri-captain Matt Schlessman is an All-American in freestyle, butterfly and individual medley events.
Minnesota juniors Ty Bathurst and Manolis Lentaris should also make major contributions. Bathurst was an honorable mention All-American last year in two different relays and is a five-time Big Ten finalist. Lentaris, who did not compete in the NCAA’s last season because of injury, swam on two Big Ten champion relays last February.
“We’ve got a good solid team nucleus with Manolis Lentaris, Ty Bathurst and Jonathan McLeod,” Dale said. “Those guys are going to have to lead us into the Big Ten finals.”
McLeod and Martin Zielinski, both sophomores, should chip in good performances again this season for the Gophers. McLeod returns to Minnesota after spending last year in Canada training for his native country’s Olympic team. He earned All-America accolades in 1995 on the 800-meter freestyle relay team. After registering a strong freshman season, Zielinski will try to improve on his two All-America honorable mentions from a year ago.
The men’s swimming and diving team is in action Saturday at the University Aquatic Center for its annual Alumni Meet, in which they will compete against former Gophers swimmers.
Hopes remain high again this year that the team can duplicate last year’s success, and it won’t have to wait another 70 years for its next Big Ten title.