Gophers capture Big Ten title in last event

by Krista Theis

The battle for the 2007 conference title came down to the final relay at this weekend’s Big Ten Men’s Swimming Championships in Columbus, Ohio.

Running on a mixture of adrenaline and momentum, Minnesota’s 400-yard freestyle relay beat Northwestern by less than two-tenths of a second and ultimately gave the Gophers their fifth Big Ten Championship in seven years.

“I was kind of flabbergasted,” coach Dennis Dale said. “The place was going crazy.

“It’s nice to have (the title) back where it belongs.”

Heading into the final event, Minnesota trailed Michigan by just six points and had to win the race in order to take home the title.

The relay team of juniors Tyler Schmidt and Mike Woodson and seniors Igor Cerensek and Mario Delac touched the wall with a time of 2:52.83, adding 40 points to the team’s total score.

The Wolverines received 30 points for their fourth-place finish in the event, allowing the Gophers to win the meet by just four points – 612.5 to 608.5. Ohio State finished third and Indiana placed fourth.

“We could see the angst on the young guys’ faces,” senior Drew Knoechel said. “Of course everyone was nervous and excited at the same time, but a few of us older guys just knew, just knew that our guys were going to do it.”

Dale said Minnesota’s “never say die” attitude throughout the whole meet is what allowed the Gophers to win the event.

Senior Dan Berve said his teammates really excelled the entire weekend.

“From start to finish, guys were stepping up and improving on their places from the morning swims – really just not wanting to quit,” he said.

Going into the meet, Dale said Minnesota’s depth was going to be the key to scoring points and winning the meet.

“Every opportunity that our guys had to pick up points they did,” Dale said. “We knew we needed to make up points on Sunday night and they did a great job.”

Although the Gophers had great races on each day of the meet, it was Sunday night’s finals that will undoubtedly linger in their minds forever.

To start out the night, sophomore Mike Holmes finished second in 1,650-yard freestyle in 14:58.20, dropping 21 seconds off his career-best time. His time automatically qualified him for the NCAA Championship meet in March and set the ball rolling for a very exciting night.

“I think what got the whole thing started was our milers,” Berve said of the 1,650 swimmers. “Mike Holmes really got us off to the start we needed and kept the energy high the whole session.”

Another great performance of the night was junior David Plummer’s fourth-place finish in the 200-yard backstroke with a time of 1:43.16.

In the 100-yard freestyle, Cerensek tied for third with a time of 43.39, while Schmidt swam a career-best 43.63 to take fifth.

Knoechel also swam a personal-best time of 1:54.06 in the 200-yard breaststroke to place fifth in the event.

Minnesota’s relays had success all season long and it continued over the weekend. The Gophers placed in the top three in each relay event, and swam fast enough to qualify for the NCAA Championships in all relay events.

“(Sunday night) was almost indescribable. The energy we had was unreal,” Berve said. “By the end of the night we were all going crazy, and it was just a fantastic way to end the meet.”

Knoechel said this meet was by far one of the most fulfilling sporting experiences of his life.

“It was a complete team effort, and it’s great to share that with the guys we hang out with every day,” Knoechel said.

He also expressed how much it meant to be a part of such a long reign of successful Gophers teams.

This year’s conference meet was very similar to the one in 2005 when Minnesota won by only three points.

“To be a part of a tradition like that, to be a part of something that if you get second it’s a disappointment, is phenomenal,” Knoechel said. “There are guys who have done this in years past that I don’t even know, but yet we’re a part of something so close.”