Recruiting changes start new era

Coach Gary Wilson changed his approach after getting burned by a few athletes.

Ben Goessling

Gary Wilson realizes now he had it all wrong.

In 2002 and 2003, the Minnesota women’s track and field coach tried bringing the Gophers back to the top of the Big Ten with a band of supremely talented but, ultimately, self-involved athletes.

And all he got was trouble.

Sydney Cartwright, Minnesota’s former sprint coach, left for Alabama in the summer of 2002, taking All-American sprinter Tahesia Harrigan with him.

All-American javelin thrower Barbora Spotakova went home to the Czech Republic that same year, and talented sprinter Kou Luogon left the team after one season for Alabama in 2003.

“Most kids have character,” Wilson said. “But all it takes is three or four to ruin a locker room. Some people just like to bitch. If you give them a million dollars, they want a million and one.”

Following Luogon’s departure, Wilson’s recruiting philosophy changed.

And after three years of aborted rebuilding projects, he might be done with them.

Minnesota tied a school record with a third-place finish at the Big Ten Indoor Championships. The Gophers now head into the outdoor season with 42 underclassmen – many of whom mirror the scrappy personalities of Wilson and sprint coach Matt Bingle.

“We bring in strong-willed kids who give what they’ve got,” Bingle said. “I could be gone for a week, and everybody would do what they’re supposed to do. They will go out and run until they kill themselves.”

That attitude was evident Monday, when Wilson had to talk freshman Annie Yetzer out of a longer workout while she recovers from an injury.

“We recruit those kids now. I cannot undo 18 years of bad parenting,” Wilson said.

Minnesota might still be a year or two away from Big Ten title contention, but the Gophers’ Big Ten indoor meet showing set a benchmark for this spring.

It is, historically, a better outdoor team and will add points in the throwing events – particularly if Liz Podominick returns from her other engagement in time to help the Gophers.

“We hope like hell we don’t have her until mid-April,” Wilson said of the redshirt freshman, who is also a center on Minnesota’s women’s basketball team. “She’ll be a little behind, but she’s talented enough that she can contribute.”

The Gophers only have four seniors, and while Wilson predicts the team can score 150 points at the 2007 Big Ten Outdoor Championships, it is gratification enough for Minnesota’s outgoing athletes to see the team back on its feet.

“It was tough seeing two of my training partners leave,” senior sprinter Melissa Woltman said. “But the coaches have things going in the right direction. They’re going to win a Big Ten title.”

But for Wilson, vindication has already come.

“We went through two years of track purgatory, where everything in the world happened to us,” he said. “This team has an intrinsic pride, and they’re an absolute joy to coach.”

Big Ten honors Brown

Sophomore Emily Brown was named Big Ten athlete of the week after breaking the school record in the 3,000-meter steeplechase during the weekend at the Northridge Invitational in Irvine, Calif.