Men’s track making final push

Brian Hall

Minnesota men’s track and field team hangs its hat on two meets every year, the Big Ten Indoor and Outdoor Championships.

While other high-profile meets are important to the Gophers, they merely give athletes the opportunity to post competitive individual times and distances while warming up for the conference championships.

Beginning this week, Minnesota re-emphasized its main focus of the Big Ten outdoor championships when the coaching staff held a meeting to ensure all their athletes were prepared for this pivotal time.

“They told us it is the important part of the year now,” senior Toby Henkels said. “They want us to sharpen our mental focus and get together as a team. We need to just have that focus every time out, whether it’s a meet or practice.”

The Gophers host the Last Chance Invitational this weekend before heading to Madison, Wis., for the Big Ten Outdoor Championships May 17-19.

Coach Phil Lundin believes the conference meet will break down to a fight between three teams -Wisconsin, Purdue and Minnesota.

“The guys understand how important it is,” Lundin said. “It’s almost an unspoken thing, but everybody knows it’s our focus. We thought we were going to win the indoor championships before they were cancelled.

“Outdoors we have that same feeling that we are in the hunt.”

Minnesota led after the first day of the 2002 Big Ten Indoor Championships but the meet was cancelled due to the death of Penn State pole-vaulter Kevin Dare.

Instead of dwelling on missed opportunities the Gophers instead use the indoor championships as fuel to succeed outdoors.

“We had a great shot at winning in March,” Henkels said. “Now, we are just carrying that to the outdoor season. We use it as motivation.”

With the opportunity to win a conference team title, Minnesota plans to use every weapon in its arsenal – possibly even using athletes in two or three events.

“To a degree you push for the title while maybe doubling and tripling kids,” Lundin said. “But it depends on the kid, some are young and some are coming back from injuries.

“The conference is a lot different than the other meets. Before it was about times and distances, now it’s about beating people. That is first and foremost.”

While not a focus for the Gophers, the squad does offer the opportunity for many individual titles with many of the top-ranked athletes in the conference.

Henkels possesses the top conference time in the 800-meter run, Adam Steele owns the No. 1 mark in the 400-meter dash and Mikael Jakobsson is the top 400-meter hurdler.

The 4×400-meter relay team also owns the top spot.

“When you start looking at all the events we have several people in the top one to three rankings right now,” Lundin said. “But going in you say anyone in the top five or so is in a position to win.”

Minnesota also boasts many national caliber athletes.

Jakobsson is an automatic qualifier in the 400-meter hurdles while Steele, Henkels, Will McComb in the 5,000-meter run, Karl Erickson in the discus and the 4×400-meter relay team have posted provisional times.

“Right now those guys will have to improve,” Lundin said. “I think they will improve also. Going into the Big Tens we aren’t thinking about individual performances, but the stimulus, atmosphere and performance levels should bring out the best.

“Now if we could just get some good weather.”

Minnesota would rather relish in a Big Ten title than individual champions or All-Americans. Minnesota last won the Big Ten Outdoor team title in 1999. Last season the Gophers fell to fourth in the conference, their worst finish in six years under Lundin.

“At Big Tens the team score is paramount,” Lundin said. “But, if you can kill two birds with one stone it’s nice. You have to just put your best foot forward. For those attempting to reach the national level it’s their own last-chance meet.”

New recruits

The Gophers have announced the names of several high school athletes planning to attend Minnesota in the fall.

David Kelley, Pat Akpaette, Owete Omot, Adam Tiedt, Matthew Engebretson and Dan Stoudt have all signed on to become Gophers.

Kelley and Akpaette are jumpers; Omot is a sprinter, while Tiedt, Stoudt and Engebretson will be potential decathletes.

Meanwhile cross-country coach Steve Plasencia revealed Antonio Verga and Will Enns will run for the Gophers.

The new signings bring Minnesota’s total to 11 athletes set to begin the freshman seasons next year.

Schutz given scholarship

Minnesota women’s track and field athlete Rachel Schutz is a recipient of the 2002 Tracy L. Chestnut Endowed Scholarship.

The sophomore was the recipient of the team’s Coaches Award as well as being named to the Academic All-Big Ten team last year.

Schutz owns the fifth-fastest 400-meter dash time in school history while also participating in the fifth-quickest 4×400-meter relay team for the Gophers.

Brian Hall covers track and field and welcomes comments at [email protected]