Women return to Florida for NCAA regional

The men will be underdogs to win the Big Ten championships.

Gopher gymnast Shannon Golich participates on the beam on Saturday, Feb. 9, 2013, at the Sports Pavilion.

Bridget Bennett

Gopher gymnast Shannon Golich participates on the beam on Saturday, Feb. 9, 2013, at the Sports Pavilion.

Nickalas Tabbert

The season is on the line for the Gophers women’s gymnastics team this weekend in Florida.

Minnesota will compete against five teams in its NCAA regional Saturday in Gainesville, Fla. The Gophers will need to finish in the top two to advance to their first NCAA championships in more than a decade.

Gophers coach Meg Stephenson said the team will have to hit all 24 routines to advance.

“The teams that move on are the teams that are going to hit at regionals,” she said. “That’s definitely our first and most important goal. It has been all year long.”

Minnesota, the co-Big Ten regular season champion, has shown it can compete with the best in the nation, including Florida.

The Gophers lost to the Gators last month but got to see the Stephen C. O’Connell Center, the site of the regional meet.

Senior Shannon Golich said competing in the same gym is beneficial because of the comfort level.

“We can visualize actually our routines previously because we know how the arena looks, and we know how the arena feels,” she said.

Stephenson said being familiar with the equipment is important as well.

Minnesota is not as familiar with Auburn. The Tigers share the No. 12 ranking with the Gophers, but the two teams have not faced off this season.

Auburn has the statistical advantage on balance beam and uneven bars, while Minnesota has been better on vault and floor exercise.

Golich said facing Auburn for the first time this season isn’t a concern because the team will only worry about its own performance.

“We’re competing against us and only us,” she said. “If we just go in and do what we know how to do, it should be a great outcome.”

Men enter Big Ten meet as underdog

The Gophers men’s gymnastics team enters this weekend’s Big Ten championships as an underdog to claim the title.

Ranked the fifth-best team in the conference in the polls, Minnesota will have to score high as a team Friday night during the team competition.

Scoring high will likely require the team to peak at the Big Ten meet.

The Gophers have been varying the difficulty of their training routine to give the athletes a chance to perform their best this weekend. The team will have had two “medium” weeks in a row entering the conference championships.

“And that’s really when we’re feeling the best and performing the best,” sophomore Steve Jaciuk said. “Everything just comes together really well.”

Burns said the team is taking precautions to stay rested this week, mainly by avoiding a hard workout Thursday.

“It’s all about feeling good right now,” he said.

Performing well at the Big Ten championships needs little incentive, but Minnesota may have been given one by hosting the event.

“Having the meet here is huge,” coach Mike Burns said, adding the environment will be the loudest it has been all season.

“I think it’s more exciting than the Olympic Games,” he said of the meet. “The team spirit, the team atmosphere — you can taste it in the air.”

Minnesota has a clear advantage by competing at its own venue. Jaciuk said Penn State gymnasts were commenting on the Pavilion’s bright lights two weeks ago when the Gophers hosted the Nittany Lions.

Minnesota practiced using the meet equipment at the Sports Pavilion on Wednesday. All seven schools will practice at the Pavilion on Thursday.

A team champion will be crowned Friday, and individual champions will be crowned Saturday.

Minnesota will have to hit most of its routines to be competitive. Burns said if the team does, it might surprise itself with its place in the standings.

The Gophers will have to challenge Penn State and Michigan to win the title, Burns said.

Minnesota had its shot at the No. 1 Nittany Lions two weeks ago at home, but it lost by five points.

Jaciuk said Penn State is “definitely beatable.”

“As good as they are, they looked like there were some chinks in the armor,” Burns said. “Hopefully, we can take advantage of that.”