Gophers set to kick off Big Ten championships

Minnesota will look to unseat defending champions Indiana.

Megan Ryan

 

A season of pool time culminates Wednesday in the Big Ten championships meet for the Gophers women’s swimming and diving team. Competition runs through Saturday.

Minnesota will face a tough four-day battle in Iowa City, Iowa with reigning champions Indiana. The Hoosiers have won four of the last five years, including the last three straight.

“They’re the team to beat for sure,” head men’s and women’s coach Kelly Kremer said. Minnesota recorded a school record 578 points last season but finished second to Indiana, which tallied a whopping 821 points.

The Gophers were the highest nationally ranked team heading into the last Big Ten championships. This year, No. 15 Minnesota lags behind No. 14 Ohio State and No. 12 Indiana.

“I hope we can use that to our advantage in terms of our women feeling a little slighted this year,” Kremer said. “But to be fair, with the kind of years that Indiana and Ohio State have had, I think we’re ranked appropriately. This championship season is an opportunity to prove that we’re a better team than we’ve shown all year.”

There is at least one area of hope for the Gophers — only two individual champions returned to Indiana from last year’s squad.

While the conference championships are important, head women’s coach Terry Nieszner puts the meet into perspective.

“The Big Tens, even though it’s a big meet for them, they know it’s not the ultimate,” Nieszner said. “NCAAs is the meet that you want to be at. I think that calms some fears that this is a stepping stone. You’ve got to perform well here, but we’ve got kids that are expecting to final at Olympic trials and have won at the national level.”

One of the veterans with national experience is senior Ashley Steenvoorden, the defending Big Ten champion in the 1,650-yard freestyle — which she has won the last three years — and the 500 freestyle — which she’s won the last two years.

If she wins the 1,650 freestyle again, she will be only the second Gophers swimmer to sweep an event over her collegiate career.

“That’s definitely a goal … for me, I really would like to win that fourth title,” Steenvoorden said. “[But] I’m not going to base my performance off of place. If I go my lifetime best and I get beat, hats off to the girl next to me.”

The diving team has fewer veterans but a slew of young talent.

“Even though they are a younger team, they competed before they came to college. They should have this kind of experience,” head diving coach Wenbo Chen said.

There is only one freshman on the Big Ten roster, and the three others all have conference championship experience.

With senior and reigning one-meter and three-meter diving champion Kelci Bryant on leave to prepare for the 2012 Summer Olympics in London, sophomore Maggie Keefer will look to fill her void. Keefer placed fifth in one-meter at the last championship as well as scored on three-meter and platform.

“I’m more experienced now, I know what to expect. Last year I didn’t know what to expect at all,” Keefer said. “This year, being experienced at Big Tens, I know what to do during the meet, and I know it’s a real competition, and it’s really important.”