A year ago, an overachieving Gophers men’s swimming and diving team shocked the Big Ten and themselves by beating a heavily-favored Michigan squad at the Big Ten championships. This time around, however, No. 9 Minnesota will not have the element of surprise on its side.
By ending Michigan’s 10-year headlock on the conference title in the Wolverines’ home pool in Ann Arbor, Mich., the Gophers served notice to the Big Ten that they had finally arrived. In the process, Minnesota also ended a six-year stint of finishing second to Michigan.
The Gophers are determined to prove their upset victory last year was not a fluke, and they will get their chance at the 1997 Big Tens starting today through Saturday in Bloomington, Ind.
“We want to show them that last year wasn’t just a one-time thing,” Gophers swimmer Manolis Lentaris said. “We just want to go out there and prove ourselves again.”
The Gophers’ determination and confidence this season stands in stark contrast to the team’s sentiments at this time last season. Nobody on the 1995-96 team expected to beat Michigan, which was not only the defending conference champion but also the defending national champion and ranked No. 1 in the nation.
“Last year it was a surprise,” senior tri-captain Matt Schlessman said. “We really didn’t expect it, and it just kind of happened. This year we’re going in with a real focus to win.”
Gophers coach Dennis Dale was perhaps the most pessimistic about his team’s chances before last season’s Big Tens, stating that the Gophers didn’t have “a snowball’s chance in hell” of upsetting the Wolverines in Ann Arbor. This time around, however, he has a more positive outlook.
“Our athletes have been more confident all year,” Dale said. “Winning last year created a different atmosphere. We know we can win.”
Coming into this season, Minnesota was again picked to finish behind Michigan. The preseason Speedo America Top 25 coaches poll ranked the Gophers 13th, nine places behind Michigan. After finishing third at the NCAA championships last year, the Wolverines were again expected to be shoe-ins for the Big Ten title, even though they lost to Minnesota at the 1996 Big Tens.
But the Gophers have exceeded expectations again this year, entering this weekend’s Big Tens undefeated at 11-0 overall and 4-0 in the conference.
No. 3 Michigan, however, has struggled at times and seems to have been swimming tired at various points this season. After beating then-No. 1 Texas 129-114 in late November, the Wolverines went into a tailspin. In the same week in mid-January, the team lost to current-No.1 Stanford and No. 4 California by large margins on successive nights and finished third at the Dallas News Classic. Michigan finished their dual-meet season 6-2 and 4-0 in the Big Ten.
For possibly the first time in the last decade, the Gophers are going into the Big Tens expecting to finish in first place.
“This is by far the best team that we’ve ever had,” said former Gophers All-American Derek Williams, who is a student assistant with this year’s team. “I think (we’ll repeat) without a doubt.”
A year ago, Minnesota rallied to beat Michigan 620.5-545.5 at the Big Tens, after losing its lead at the beginning of the third and final day of competition. The Wolverines had eight swimmers preparing for the NCAAs instead of the Big Tens last year, which means those swimmers did not shave or taper for the meet.
“A Big Ten title is a Big Ten title,” Dale said after last year’s improbable victory ended Minnesota’s 70-year drought between conference crowns. “Michigan did what they thought they had to do to win, and it wasn’t enough.”
Whether or not the Wolverines underestimated Minnesota last year, the fact remains that this season Michigan will have to go into the Big Tens and beat the defending conference champions for a change.
While the Gophers believe they are a stronger team, one thing is clear — they are certainly more confident.
“We can do it,” Schlessman said. “I know we can. We beat them last year and we definitely have a better team this year.”