Minnesota hoping to improve from sixth place in conference

The Gophers finished sixth at the Big Ten Championships last season.

Last year a sixth-place finish was considered a solid season for Minnesotaís womenís swimming and diving team.

This year, improvement is in sight as the Gophers travel to compete at the 2006 Big Ten Championships which begin at 6 tonight in Columbus, Ohio.

And the Gophers, who even moved into the top 25 rankings at 24th this week, wonít be satisfied with anything short of what they think they are capable of ó a top-four finish.

ìWe want to improve from last year,” senior Kate Hardt said. ìWe believe we are a top-four team and want to see if we can do that, and we want to be represented on the individual level at NCAAs.”

Hardt said that it could be the teamís camaraderie that sets it apart from the other Big Ten teams.

Every year the team travels to Hawaii for a winter training trip at the end of December and into January, and this year the trip had a substantial impact on the team.

Hardt said she and her teammates have talked about how the mood and attitude of the team heading into Big Tens has changed from one year ago.

She said normally they like to think they are a cohesive group, but this year they truly are.

ìItís definitely a source of pride, and itís something we really didnít have as much of last year,” Hardt said. ìWe said that we did, but when we got to Big Tens we werenít as much of a team as we would have liked.”

Coinciding with a cohesive swimming core is the Gophers young diving group thatís gained experience slowly but surely.

Minnesotaís diving team is led by freshmen Erica Schiffler and Brianna Hubbard, who will experience championship season for the first time.

Also making his first appearance at the Big Ten Championships as a Gopher is Minnesota diving coach Jason Baumann. And Minnesotaís toughest opponent might be his old team ó Indiana.

The 16th-ranked Hoosiers are ranked second to No. 11 Wisconsin in the Big Ten, with 17th-ranked Purdue and No. 22 Michigan, the only other teams ranked ahead of the Gophers going into the championships.

ìI believe weíre ready to have our best performances of the year,” Baumann said. ìWith how hard weíve been training, Iím really looking forward to seeing the results.”

Co-coach Kelly Kremer said that more than anything, he is excited to see what his team puts together over the weekend.

ìRight now weíre the sixth best team on paper,” he said. ìThere is no doubt that we are a better team from a year ago, but so are those other teams ahead of us. I know that we are ready to compete, and I canít wait to see how our team competes.”

Kremer said the team competition in the Big Ten is maybe a bit too tough this year, but he added that the Gophers can expect to qualify individuals for the NCAA Championships.

So far for Minnesota, just freshmen distance swimmers Christine Jennings and Yuen Kobayashi have met the NCAA qualifying standards, but they hope to add some qualifying times this weekend.

Specifically, they want to get some seniors competing at the NCAA Championships.

ìThe Kate Hardts, Bridget McCoys and the Katie Winds have meant so much to this program that you want to see them go out on top,” Kremer said. ìIt would mean the world to see them qualify.”

So, individually there are expectations for the Gophers, and a top-four team finish is merely a hope.

ìThrough the ups and the downs you come together as a team,” Baumann said. ìThe training trip was nice, and itís obviously had an effect with how we work together as a group. Weíve gotten closer and weíre looking for it to pay off.”