Minnesota reliant on seniors going out strong, leading the way at NCAAs

The Gophers are sending a conference-best 13 athletes to the meet.

When the No. 9-ranked Minnesota swim team takes to the waters this weekend at the NCAA Championships in Federal Way, Wash., it will rely on the strength of its upperclassmen and tradition.

The Gophers sent 13 athletes to the meet, the most in the Big Ten, seven of whom have earned All-American honors.

Nine athletes make a return trip to the championships, but for one of them the trip has been a long time coming.

Senior Russ Payne returns to the competition for the first time since his freshman year and anxiously awaits his opportunity to earn All-American honors.

“I’m kind of looking to bookend my career here,” Payne said. “I had a great freshman year and I’m just looking to have a great senior year. The opportunity to become an All-American is a huge one, one that not many people get. I feel really happy to have that opportunity.”

Payne will compete in the 200 and 400 yard individual medley and the 200 yard backstroke.

“Russ has had a great 12 months,” head coach Dennis Dale said. “He wants to go out scoring points in the NCAA Championships.”

While Payne will try to end his career on a high note, the rest of the team has its sights on maintaining a standard of excellence.

Minnesota has finished in the top 10 at the NCAA Championships six of the past eight years and in the top 15 for 16-straight years.

“When you think of swimming, you don’t always think of Minnesota,” senior Tyler Schmidt said. “It’s definitely a benchmark that we don’t want to let down.”

The strength of the Gophers relay teams has aided the program to reach a level of national prominence.

For the sixth straight season, Minnesota qualified all five of its relay teams for the championships. Points in the relay events are worth twice as much as the other events, so the importance of performing well in those events becomes essential for a high team finish.

The Gophers have achieved success in the relays by using different combinations of athletes to yield the best result, part of the reason Minnesota has 13 athletes participating in the event.

“We’re really proud of the fact that all five of our relays qualified and are here,” Dale said. “It’s kind of a hallmark of the Minnesota swim team.”

When a member of the relay team makes the meet, he is eligible to swim his other events.

“We get our relays here and we know that’s the way we get others to the meet,” Dale said. “Sometimes we have an athlete who swims on the 800 free relay then he gets to swim in the 500 free and the 200 free, which is the case of Ray Betuzzi.”

Dale said he plans to change the relay teams prior to the championships and likes the options the 13 athletes give him.

“We use different athletes on different relays,” Dale said. “We tend to be more specialists.”

Those specialists will include Payne and Schmidt competing in their final collegiate meet.

The meet will have a distinctive feel from the high-pressure atmosphere of the Big Ten Championships of a month ago.

“This is definitely a special meet for us,” Schmidt said. “It will be a lot more relaxed and we just want to have fun.”