Gophers step forward at NCAAs

Minnesota finished tied for 18th after finishing 24th last season.

Minnesotas Derek Toomey swims in the mens 100-yard breaststroke during the Minnesota Challenge on Saturday, Feb. 9, 2013, at the University Aquatic Center.

Ichigo Takikawa, Daily File Photo

Minnesota’s Derek Toomey swims in the men’s 100-yard breaststroke during the Minnesota Challenge on Saturday, Feb. 9, 2013, at the University Aquatic Center.

Nate Gotlieb

The Gophers men’s swimming and diving team took a step in the right direction at the NCAA championships this weekend, improving on last season’s disappointing finish.

Minnesota accrued 53 team points at the IU Natatorium in Indianapolis and tied for 18th place, six places higher than last season.

“We had a pretty simple goal coming in here: to finish higher than we did a year ago,” head coach Kelly Kremer said. “We’re moving back in the right direction.”

Junior captain Derek Toomey made sure the Gophers had no letdown at the championships, setting the tone early with a third-place finish in the 50-yard freestyle.

Toomey swam the event in 19.18 seconds Thursday night after posting a time of 19.10 seconds in Thursday morning’s preliminary round.

“All year, you could tell he was just swimming great,” senior captain Jared Anderson said. “It’s cool for all of us because you knew something big was coming at the end of the year.”

Toomey shaved more than half a second off his 50 freestyle time throughout the past month. He credited the improvement to his regimen near the end of the season — resting, shaving and wearing a faster swimsuit — and the excitement of the championships.

But Toomey wasted no time in thinking about next season.

“For next year, I really want to get at least one national title,” he said, “and I want to be able to get top eight in both my individual events and help three, maybe four of my relays into the top eight or top 16 as well.”

Toomey earned four All-America honors at the championships, increasing his career total to 10 and solidifying him as one of the most decorated Gophers swimmers in recent history.

But he wasn’t alone.

Eight Gophers swimmers and divers earned All-America honors, including Anderson. In his first NCAA championships, Anderson finished 10th in the 100 breaststroke with a time of 52.90 seconds, becoming the first Minnesota athlete to swim the event in less than 53 seconds.

“Every race was just getting a little bit closer,” Anderson said. “To look up at the finals and finally see that 52 was just a really nice release from being so close for so long.”

Divers Jordan Lesser and Mikey Ross scored in 1-meter and 3-meter diving, respectively. Lesser took 10th in the 1-meter Thursday, and Ross finished 13th in the 3-meter Friday.

Sophomore CJ Smith was Minnesota’s other individual All-American, finishing 13th in the 1,650-yard freestyle.

The Gophers tied for 18th place with Arizona State but were unable to crack the top 15 for the second consecutive season. The team finished in the top 15 at the championships every year from 1990-2011.

“Top 15 was the kind of like the really big, high goal that was going to take a lot,” Anderson said. “By the time we started looking at the scoreboard Saturday night … it was like, ‘Boy, if we can stay in the top 20, that would be really good.’”

Michigan (480 points) won its first NCAA championship since 1995, while two-time defending champion California finished second (406.5). Michigan’s title was only the second for the Big Ten in the last 40 years.

The Gophers, who finished fourth at the Big Ten championships earlier in March, were the fifth-highest placing Big Ten team at the NCAA meet.

“I definitely think next year will be better than this year,” Toomey said, “and even closer to where we want to be in the coming years, too.”