Men’s swimmers dive into title chase

Ryan Schuster

It was a strange sight.
Gophers men’s swimming assistant coach Clark Campbell and student coach Kenji Sudoh stood side by side in silence at the University Aquatic Center, twirling their stopwatches in unison. Both men’s eyes were fixed on the 12 members of the team in the pool.
Coach Dennis Dale, who has led the Gophers to a 91-22 record in his 11-plus seasons at the helm, was nowhere in sight. Neither assistant, however, seemed overly concerned. Dale had stayed in Florida, the sight of the team’s winter training trip, to spend time with family. He handed the reigns to Campbell and Sudoh for a week of practice. The swimmers, like the coaches, took the different arrangement in stride like they have handled adversity all season.
It wasn’t supposed to be this way. Following last year’s Big Ten Championship season and a 12th-place finish at the NCAA meet, Minnesota was thought to be a rebuilding team. After all, the Gophers lost All-Americans P.J. Bogart, Bernie Zeruhn and Derek Williams — the heart of their 1995-96 team — to eligibility. The Gophers were expected to finish second to Michigan again this season, something they have done six of the last seven years, despite being the defending conference champions.
Minnesota was ranked 13th in the Speedo America Top 25 preseason coaches swimming poll, nine places behind Michigan. After finishing third at the NCAA meet last year, the Wolverines were expected to be shoe-ins for the Big Ten title, even though they lost to the Gophers at the 1996 Big Tens at their home pool in Ann Arbor, Mich.
However, Minnesota is performing better than expected and better than it was last year at this time, prompting talk of a second-straight Big Ten title.
The Gophers are undefeated at 4-0 on the season and were ranked eighth in the latest coaches poll, while Michigan, who is also undefeated, stayed at No. 4.
“Right now were in better shape than we were last year at this time,” junior Jeremy Rients said. “I think everyone’s looking for a repeat of the Big Ten championship.”
Dale agrees that Minnesota is swimming better than it was last year at this time. “Were a better team than we were a year ago,” Dale said. “We have more depth and strength in the (individual medley) that we didn’t have last year.”
Junior Jeffrey Rodriguez, the team’s third-best competitor in the individual medley this year behind Yoav Meiri and Jonathan McLeod, is better than anyone the Gophers had in the event last year. Meiri is a freshman from Israel, while McLeod returned to the team after spending last season training for the Olympics in his native country of Canada.
Although the breaststroke event was a weakness of the team last season, this year it is one of Minnesota’s strengths. At last year’s Big Tens Michigan had an even worse breaststroke showing than the Gophers did, another factor pointing in Minnesota’s favor.
Even though the Gophers will probably be underdogs again on Feb. 27 when they compete at the Big Tens, Minnesota will at least have confidence going into the meet. When asked if the team can repeat as Big Ten Champions junior Eriek Hulseman answered, “Oh, I know we can. It’s just a matter of getting it done.”
Coach Dale echoed his team’s sentiments and was assured of its abilities.
“There’s no question we can (repeat),” Dale said. “The question is whether were going to. That’s why the meet is being held, to find out who is going to win the thing.”
But before Minnesota starts to think about a rematch with Michigan, they have to first concentrate on the last seven meets of the season. However, with the confidence of this team, it seems another battle with Michigan at the Big Ten meet appears to be imminent again this year.