Gophers restocked and ready for Big Ten championships

Brian Stensaas

Coming off nearly three weeks of rest and preparation for this weekend’s Big Ten championships, the Minnesota men’s swimming and diving team is ready to hit the pool. But joining the team are nine others with the same goal: knock off defending champion Penn State.
Gophers coach Dennis Dale is confident his team can at least achieve the second-place finish it achieved a year ago.
“Practice has been going very good for us,” Dale said. “Our guys are focused. They are ready to swim well.”
In order to return to the top steps of the podium, which they reached in 1998, the Gophers will have to find a way to replace over 300 points lost due to graduation last year. Among the lettermen lost are John Cahoy and Martin Zielinski, who went 1-2 in the 100-yard butterfly at the ’99 championships.
They leave tough swim caps to fill, but with sophomore Chad Krastins back after placing fifth in the same event, it could be done.
Minnesota is also looking for a way to score points in the distance freestyle events. Not a single Minnesota swimmer placed in the top 16 in the 500 or 1650 freestyle events a year ago.
“Clearly, the distance free is one thing that will be key for us,” Dale said. “We need to be involved in that this year. We need to score in all events to be competitive.”
The Gophers did not lose all of their big guns. Ricardo Dornales (50 freestyle), Alex Massura (100 backstroke) and Dan Croaston (3-meter diving) all won championships last year and return this season with the same hopes.
Croaston is especially ready.
“I’m looking for very good things,” he said. “My confidence couldn’t be any higher right now. I’ve been practicing hard and hopefully it shows.”
But with diving, or any other event, it takes more than confidence.
“It can go any way,” Croaston continued. “I could wake up and not feel ready or have one bad dive. But then, I could do amazing.”
The Gophers also won four of five relays last year. An early jump off the starting blocks in the 200 freestyle relay prevented a clean sweep.
Somewhat overshadowed by the returning point-scorers is the core of young talent swimming this weekend.
Freshman Mike Mahoney is one Gopher about to swim in his first conference championship. And he wasn’t always too sure he would be there.
Mahoney began the season off from his usual training schedule. He hadn’t trained regularly since March — almost a six-month layoff from his normal swimming.
“I started the year no doubt the worst on the team,” Mahoney said. “I wasn’t doing as much as I should have, but then I asked myself if I wanted to be a better swimmer.
Mahoney said that he even had a brief thought of quitting the team but eventually changed his mind.
“I decided to work my ass off,” Mahoney said. “Once we got back from the training trip, I began to believe in myself more.”
Now, it’s the whole team who needs that determination. And Dale sees signs of that confidence.
“Hats off to this team,” Dale said. “We have a chance this weekend because of their hard work. Losing the points we did (last year) and still having a chance at the title is a tribute to this team.”
They’ll find out for sure when the meet starts today and runs through Saturday.

Brian Stensaas covers swimming and diving and welcomes comments at [email protected]