Men’s swimmers project a top 10 placing at NCAAs

by Ryan Schuster

Call it karma, fate or whatever. No matter what word you use, the fact remains that something unexpected has seemed to happen the past two years to prevent the Gophers men’s swimming and diving team from reaching their full potential at the NCAA championships.
Last season Minnesota came into the national meet on fire after winning its first Big Ten title in 70 years. What happened? Sophomore All-American distance swimmer Manolis Lentaris suffered a non-swimming injury and couldn’t compete, senior All-American Bernie Zeruhn had a disappointing meet and their 400-yard medley relay team was disqualified. As a result, Minnesota settled for a 12th-place finish, failing to make the top 10 for the first time since 1993.
This year it appeared that the Gophers would be able to break the spell that haunted them at the 1996 NCAAs. The No. 9 Gophers finished the regular season undefeated at 10-0 overall and placed a close second to No. 7 Michigan at the Big Ten championships Feb. 27-March 1 in Bloomington, Ind.
Lentaris has suffered from a variety of seemingly unrelated symptoms. As of yet, Minnesota’s medical staff has not been able to determine what ails the former All-American.
Saturday morning at the University Aquatic Center the team had another scary moment when junior freestyler Jeremy Rients collapsed from stomach cramps after practice. While Lentaris’ status for the NCAAs is currently in limbo, Rients is expected to be able to compete with the team.
“Were not as healthy as I’d like us to be,” Gophers coach Dennis Dale said.
Despite the team’s injury problems this season, the Gophers should still have an opportunity to meet their season-long goal of a top 10 finish at the national meet. Even though Minnesota lost to Michigan by 17 points at this year’s Big Tens, they still bettered last season’s point total by 11.5 points, 631 to 620.5.
“I know we can finish as high as we did last year,” Dale said. “I’m excited to see this team swim. They have gotten ready for (the NCAAs) as well as any team we’ve ever had.”
Counting Lentaris and Rients, the Gophers will have 13 competitors at the NCAA meet this year, the most they have ever had during Dale’s 12 years with the team. Senior tri-captain Matt Schlessman, junior Ty Bathurst and sophomore swimmer Martin Zielinski should lead the way for Minnesota. The trio combined to place in the top 15 of one individual event and four relays at the 1996 NCAAs and were all named to the All-Big Ten team this year.
Schlessman, an All-American his sophomore year as a member of the 800 freestyle relay, will swim the 50 and 100 freestyle and on the 200, 400 and 800 freestyle relays as well as the 400 medley relay event. The graduate of St. Ignatius High School in Avon, Ohio, is considered one of the fastest sprint swimmers in the Big Ten, along with Bathurst.
At 6-foot-3, 200 pounds, Bathurst is easily the biggest and strongest swimmer on the team. Minnesota hopes that his size and bulk help him score points in the 100 breaststroke, 50 and 100 freestyle and on the 200 medley and 200 freestyle relays. The junior from Albuquerque, N.M., was an honorable mention All-American as a member of both relays a year ago at the NCAAs.
Despite only being a sophomore, Zielinski has already become one of the top butterfly swimmers in school history. The graduate of Bloomington Jefferson High School won the 100 butterfly at the Big Tens in a time of 47.09 seconds, besting both the school mark set by Derek Williams last year and the conference record by almost .3 seconds. He will compete in the 100 backstroke, 100 and 200 butterfly and on both the 200 and 400 medley relay teams.
Rients will probably swim at nationals with his teammates, while Lentaris is still questionable. The rest of the Gophers’ 1997 NCAA team consists of swimmers Jonathan McLeod, Yoav Meiri, Eriek Hulseman, Mitch Henke, Bill Bishop, John Cahoy, Luis Lopez and diver Isaac Bjorklund.
Despite the team’s bad luck with injuries over the past two years, the Gophers should still have a decent shot at cracking into the top 10 again.