Men’s track team might struggle without Jensen

by Scott Bradley

Gophers freshman Ben Jensen was supposed to be this year’s star at the Big Ten outdoor championships. Instead the school record holder in the decathlon and automatic NCAA qualifier will sit out another conference meet.
Jensen, who underwent an appendectomy Monday night after complaining of stomach pains that afternoon, redshirted last year after an ankle injury. Jensen was planning to compete in several single events at the Big Ten meet, which starts Saturday in University Park, Pa.
Jensen’s injuries have affected Gophers coach Phil Lundin like a recurring nightmare. He said the timing of Jensen’s latest injury couldn’t have been any worse.
“It affects everybody,” Lundin said. “We all kind of put our hands in the air after this happened. But what can you do? This was an appendectomy. There was nothing you could have done to prevent it from happening.”
In just his first collegiate decathlon in April, Jensen, a 1994 junior world champion, scored 7,590 points. He was one of only two NCAA automatic qualifiers for the Gophers this year, and he will likely miss that event because of the injury.
While Jensen spends this weekend recovering from his appendix surgery, coaches and athletes will focus their energy on the conference championships. Wisconsin coach Ed Nuttycombe believes the Gophers will still place in the top four at the meet. But he said their chances of contending are minimal, especially with the loss of Jensen.
“It really hurts them not having Jensen in the multi-events because he would be in position to win all of those,” Nuttycombe said.
Last year Minnesota placed fourth at the Big Ten outdoor meet, and at this year’s indoor conference championships the team finished third. Even with Jensen healthy, the Gophers probably wouldn’t challenge Wisconsin for the title. The Badgers are trying for their sixth straight Big Ten championship between cross country, indoor and outdoor track.
Nuttycombe, who watched his team win this year’s indoor title by more than 40 points, downplays his team’s chances this weekend.
“I think it’s going to be much more competitive and equal than it was at indoors,” he said. “There’s four teams that on a special given day can probably win it. Across the board it’s going to be very competitive.”
Besides Wisconsin, Lundin and Nuttycombe believe Iowa, Illinois and Minnesota will contend for second place. There are several key events for Minnesota that should help them challenge for that spot.
ù Throwing events: Junior discus thrower Jason Schlueter holds the top throw (60.42 meters) in the Big Ten this year. He and Jensen are the only Gophers athletes who automatically qualified for NCAAs.
Shot put throwers Chad Yenchesky and Jeff Marsh are fourth and fifth in the Big Ten and will need big throws to beat Indiana’s Nathan Davis, who holds the top mark (19.46 meters) in the event. Nuttycombe said Minnesota’s throwers will carry the team this weekend.
ù Middle-distance running: Led by senior Paul Michalek in the 800 and 1,500, this will be the Gophers’ other strength this weekend. Michalek is ranked second in the 800 and fourth in the 1,500, and he is confident he can contend for both titles.
One road block Michalek will face is Illinois’ Marko Koers, who competed for the Dutch team in the 1992 Olympics.
“That’s going to present a very formidable challenge and one that will be interesting to see,” Nuttycombe said. “Paul is a very good runner and will contend in either or both events.”
ù Sprints: One area in which the Gophers lack depth is sprinting events. Chris Darkins was Minnesota’s leading sprinter, but quit the team in March to pursue his professional football career. Tim VanVoorhis is now the Gophers’ top sprinter and heading into the weekend, he is ranked 10th in the conference.
ù Distance: The Gophers will also be in trouble in the distance events. Minnesota doesn’t have anyone competing in the 5,000 or 10,000 meters. The Badgers, on the other hand, have the top runners in each.
Michalek may compete in his last meet as a Minnesota athlete this weekend, depending on if he qualifies for the NCAAs later this month. He said Jensen’s absence in the meet won’t hamper the team as much as some think.
“Even with the loss of Jensen, we’re still going to be in good shape,” Michalek said. “Everybody seems to be on track to perform well.”