U takes new confidence into Big Tens

Ryan Schuster

BLOOMINGTON, Ind. — The Gophers men’s swimming and diving team had an air of confidence about them this weekend at the Big Ten championships that was not there a year ago. Minnesota’s improbable upset of defending national champion Michigan at Big Tens last year instilled in the team a feeling of self-assurance that has been their calling card all season.
Instead of always thinking of being second-best to Michigan, which had won 10 consecutive conference crowns going into last year’s Big Tens, the Gophers have started to believe in their own abilities.
The Wolverines, however, have so much confidence in their own talent that they refuse to believe the Gophers are talented enough to beat them.Michigan’s swimmers and coaches are quick to point out that they had many of their top swimmers not shaved or tapered for the meet because they were preparing for the 1996 Summer Olympic games. They consider their own disinterest in winning the Big Ten a year ago as the sole reason for the Gopher’s victory.
“We’re not defending champions only on paper,” Michigan coach John Urbanchek said. “Michigan passed up the Big Tens last year for the Olympic trials.”
Hearing the Wolverines discount Minnesota’s championship has been a bitter pill to swallow for many of the Gophers swimmers, who believe that Minnesota is every bit as strong as the Wolverines.
“Last year we proved it to ourselves that we’re a good team,” junior Ty Bathurst said. “Maybe we didn’t prove it to Michigan. I don’t know why they are making excuses like that. We have a good team this year, there’s no doubt about it.”
The Gophers’ 75-point victory over Michigan at last year’s Big Tens proved to the team for the first time that they could compete with the best and win.
“Winning last year helped our guys realize that (Michigan) puts on their pants one leg at a time, just like we do,” Gophers coach Dennis Dale said.
As the Gophers have been getting more and more confident, the talent gap between the two teams has shrunk considerably.
“Over the years we’ve been getting closer and closer,” Urbanchek said. “This is probably the most interesting it’s been in a long time.”
The Wolverines used to win the conference every year by more than 100 points from the late-1980’s to the mid-1990’s. But after Minnesota’s improbable upset of Michigan last year and this weekend’s slim 17-point differential (648-631) between the two teams, times appear to be changing.
“My freshman and sophomore year we weren’t even in the running for first place,” Gophers senior swimmer Matt Schlessman said. “This year we weren’t very far out.”
The Gophers were actually leading after the first and second days of competition this year, giving the team even more assurance in their abilities.
The Wolverines shaved and rested for the meet this year, as did Minnesota. This is the first time Michigan felt it needed to shave and rest in order to beat the Gophers since Dale started coaching at Minnesota. Michigan’s frustration over being jilted in their bid for an 11th consecutive conference crown a year ago inspired the team to regain their reign on the top spot of the Big Ten this year, one they think is rightfully theirs.
“It’s been a little bit of revenge,” Michigan swimmer John Piersma said. “We really wanted to come back and beat Minnesota. This was our year to come back and show them that we can win.”