Gophers up for hosting NCAAs

Brian Stensaas

With 14 members competing in this weekend’s NCAA swimming and diving championships, Minnesota has just as many competitors as Stanford.
The Cardinal finished second behind Auburn at the 1999 championships, the Gophers were 15th.
And still, coach Dennis Dale is not fully confident that his team can reach its goal of a top-10 finish and improve on last year’s 15th-place finish. All the while, Stanford is likely to be in the hunt once again.
Why? Big meet experience.
“We have a very young group representing us this year,” Dale said. “We’ve got some guys who have been through this before, but there are the teams that have more.”
Only Alex Massura, Minnesota’s backstroke expert, finished with All-America honors by taking fourth in the 100-meter backstroke at the 1999 NCAA championships.
Stanford, on the other hand, returns with six All-Americans — swimmers who finished in the top eight of an event.
This year’s NCAA meet will be held at the University’s own Aquatic Center. But being at home for the national championships isn’t always the best thing.
Sure, there are the positives: The team is in its comfortable environment. The Gophers will have their own lockers and more fans than usual for their NCAA swims.
But along with all that come the phone calls, friends and bothersome every-day problems that come with being at home.
“We’re happy that we are here and we’re looking to perform well,” Dale said. “It can be a distraction, even though it keeps our athletes closer to their comfort zone.”
On top of Massura’s performance, the Gophers return all relays to the meet and three individual honorable mention, All-American members — swimmers or divers who finished in the top 16.
Back and looking to improve are Dov Malnik (breaststroke), Yoav Meiri (butterfly) and Dan Croaston (diving). Croaston was on fire two weeks ago when he swept all three diving categories at the NCAA Zone C diving championships to qualify for the NCAA championships.
In all, 13 of the 14 members Minnesota qualified are competing individually, with one (Grant Butler) competing in just the relays.
This meet has been on the Gophers’ minds for the better part of the season, and Dale says his 14-member squad is ready for the anticipation to end.
“Our guys are ready to start,” Dale said. “The practice has been going well, they’re focused.”
One new face to the big show is freshman Jeff Hackler. Though he is new to the national scene, he’s no stranger to success. Hackler won the Big Ten championship in the 200 breaststroke in Ann Arbor, Mich., last month. He set a Canham Natatorium pool record, broke the Minnesota school record and wrapped up the weekend by winning Big Ten freshman of the year.
Whether or not the 14 as a whole will rise to the occasion of the national spotlight is a mystery. However, one thing holds true: The NCAA meet is a payoff to the Minnesota athletes for several months of training.
“We have a good number representing us, and they have all earned it,” Dale said. “There’s no question that our number of athletes who had to work hard is higher than others.”

Brian Stensaas covers swimming and diving and welcomes comments at [email protected]