Minnesota hoping for a top two finish as it heads to Ann Arbor, Michigan for Big Tens

Minnesota’s men’s swimming and diving team has a way of frustrating the Big Ten when the conference crown is on the line.

The Gophers won the 2005 title by edging out Indiana by three points on the last leg of the last event, on the last day.

Minnesota entered the final event, the 400-yard freestyle relay, trailing the Hoosiers by five points. Northwestern led the relay until Gopher Igor Cerensek hit the water and made up a body length lead to win the event and title for Minnesota.

Last year Minnesota beat Michigan in the same fashion, but this time extended their win by a point. The Gophers trailed the Wolverines by six points heading into the final event, once again the 400 freestyle relay and prevailed for the fourth straight year in the event for the conference title.

This year Minnesota heads to Ann Arbor, Mich., to defend its 2007 championship against top conference foes such as Indiana and Michigan this weekend.

While No. 9 Minnesota has no problem with a dramatic finish, keeping up with the Wolverines presents a problem.

“There’s no question Michigan is heavily favored,” head coach Dennis Dale said. “Not only have they been the top-ranked Big Ten team all year, but they’re hosting the meet in their pool.”

Michigan, ranked No. 4, returns a talented squad that did not lose a single point scorer from last year’s team.

The Wolverines feature three swimmers with more than one individual Big Ten title. Matt Patton and Alex Vanderkaay both hold three individual crowns and Bobby Savulich holds two of his own.

The Gophers’ roster does not have an individual title winner, but do have return seniors Mike Woodson, who finished second in the 1,650 freestyle event last year, and David Plummer, who finished fourth in the 200 backstroke last season.

Minnesota only boasted one title winner on last year’s squad, but for senior Tyler Schmidt all it takes is one person to have a strong performance to give the Gophers a chance.

“If you were talking to us before the last day of the meet last year, we had a very slim chance of winning, but it’s one of those things where it’s contagious,” Schmidt said. “Once one person starts swimming well then everybody gets pumped up.”

Last year it was Woodson who stepped up and rallied the team with his second place finish in the finals, just behind the Wolverines’ Patton.

The potential rematch between Woodson and Patton provides just one of the many intriguing matchups that may take place over the course of the championship.

Plummer and the Hoosiers’ Ben Hesen share the conference’s best time in the 100 backstroke this season. Hesen currently holds the Big Ten title in the 100 backstroke and Plummer looks to earn his first conference title of his career this year. Last year, Hesen finished third while Plummer finished fourth in the 200 backstroke.

Indiana ranks No. 8 nationally and figures to make a run at the title as they won the championship in 2006.

For Plummer and Minnesota, the meet will come down to relays as usual.

“Relays are very important this year. We have a good chance to be first and second in every relay we swim,” Plummer said. “We have to make sure to take advantage of that.”

The Gophers have finished first or second at the conference championship for 18 consecutive years, and Dale expects nothing less this year.

“We expect to go in and do battle and hopefully have a Big Ten meet we can be proud of,” Dale said. “Can we win it? It’s an uphill battle for us to win it. Can we get second? I think we can get second.”