Gophers prepare for national meet in Ark.

The men and women will be well represented at the NCAA’s.

by Derek Wetmore

Nine members of the No. 7 Gophers menâÄôs track and field team will head to Fayetteville, Ark., this weekend to compete in the NCAA indoor tournament. Minnesota is just two weeks removed from being crowned Big Ten Champions in a meet the team hosted at the University Field House . The Gophers will be led by sophomore Ben Blankenship on the heels of his record-setting mile run this past Saturday. Blankenship, who won the event two weeks ago in the Big Ten Indoor Championships, recorded a time of 3 minutes, 57.87 seconds in the Washington Qualifier . The mark is the first sub-4-minute mile time in school history and broke the old school mark, held by Andrew McKessock, by 4.69 seconds. âÄúIt was really very special. It kind of got us thinking in a new vein in regards to the mile,âÄù menâÄôs head coach Steve Plasencia said. âÄúI think heâÄôs gaining confidence in himself.âÄù Blankenship leads a litany of Big Ten champions for the Gophers into the national meet, including two returning All-Americans, Chris Rombough (3,000-meter run) and Aaron Studt (shot put). Studt has been selected to compete in the weight throw, as well. Minnesota also has three men competing in the heptathlonâÄôs field of 16: R.J. McGinnis , Jack Szmanda and Brock Spandl . The final participants are members of the distance medley relay and high jumper Matt Fisher . Fisher placed second two weeks ago in the Big Ten Championships, clearing a height of 7 feet, 2.5 inches. Early indications are that the relay team will include Andy Richards on, Harun Abda , Logan Stroman and Rombough. Plasencia said this meet will have a tougher field with the competition level raised. He also said the momentum from winning the Big Ten Indoor Championships two weeks ago should carry over, and he is excited to see how the Big Ten fares when stacked against tough conferences like the Southeastern Conference , Pacific-10 Conference and Big 12 Conference. Plasencia has been coaching at Minnesota for 14 years and said the team is healthy and in good position to continue to excel. âÄúI do think that weâÄôve put ourselves in a good position as a program to move forward and to continue to stay strong,âÄù he said. âÄúItâÄôs constant work, and everybody is trying to work against you âĦ But I do feel good about what weâÄôve been able to accomplish. I feel good about the coaches and assistants we have in place.âÄù Plasencia was recently named Big Ten Indoor Head Coach of the Year by the U.S. Track and Field/Cross Country Coaches Association. âÄúI feel very fortunate to lead this group and to work with the coaches that I do to achieve whatever we can,âÄù Plasencia said. âÄúIâÄôve been very happy. ItâÄôs been very rewarding for me.âÄù This was the third straight season in which Plasencia received the honors, including last indoor and outdoor season. Assistant coach Paul Thornton was named Midwest Region MenâÄôs Assistant Coach of the Year by his peers. Thornton is in his second year with Minnesota and works with the sprints, jumps and multi-events. Women represented by three athletes All-American Alicia Rue will lead the Gophers womenâÄôs track and field team into the NCAA Championships this weekend. The event will also take place in Fayetteville, Ark., and includes three Minnesota athletes: Rue, Samantha Sonnenberg and Megan Duwell . Rue, a senior, earned national runner-up in the pole vault competition a year ago and was recently named Big Ten Field Event Athlete of the Year. She will be joined by junior teammate Sonnenberg, who is making her NCAA Championships debut. Duwell will be competing in her first championships as well and will run the 5,000-meter run.