Home is where Big Tens are: Gophers to defend title at Aquatic Center

Minnesota has won the last two Big Ten meets in its home pool, in 1998 and 2001.

Matt Perkins

The Big Ten Championships have typically been a two-team race between Michigan and Minnesota’s men’s swimming and diving team, with the pair taking both first and second place in 14 of the last 15 seasons.

Though Indiana could enter the mix this season, defending champion Minnesota has something neither the Michigan nor Indiana will this weekend – familiar water.

Big Tens begin at noon today at the University Aquatic Center, where the Gophers won the last two times they played host, in 1998 and 2001.

Gophers coach Dennis Dale said that despite the home-pool advantage, his team can’t look past the Big Ten field and toward its NCAA goals.

“The team needs to stay level-headed,” Dale said. “We have a host of pretty good sprinters, and they need to do well for us to win.”

Dale said he thinks the 13th-ranked Hoosiers will be right up there with the usual suspects – the Wolverines are ranked fifth and the Gophers sixth – and their diving team could potentially fly them to victory.

Diving coach Mike Martens said he agreed, adding that Big Tens will be a good gauge for determining where Minnesota divers Shaun Kennedy and John Schmidt are in respect to some of the top divers in the nation.

“We need them to step up and dive the best that they ever have,” Martens said. “We can’t hope to offset or outdive Indiana and just give the team some points.”

But for the Gophers, worrying about the competition is secondary to worrying about themselves.

Individually, they are aiming to clock record-breaking times in all events and said they are convinced this is possible with supportive fans packed into the seats.

“It means a lot to have people from the campus and the surrounding area there to cheer you on,” senior captain Justin Mortimer said.

Mortimer took a redshirt last season to train for the Olympics, and he returns to the Big Ten meet this year with 17 others who scored in last year’s championships.

Among those 17 is Terry Silkaitis, the 2003 Big Ten swimmer of the year, who will swim in his last Big Ten meet.

Silkaitis swept the 50-, 100- and 200-yard freestyles in 2003 and was part of last year’s conference record-breaking 200- and 400-meter free relay teams.

With experienced leaders, such as Mortimer and Silkaitis, along with the home pool, the odds seem to be in Minnesota’s favor.

But though the crowd and pool will be nice, Dale said he wants to ensure his swimmers and divers are going in with the right attitude.

“It would be against our favor to look past this,” Dale said.