Minnesota aims at the top of the Big Ten

The Gophers last placed in the top two of the Big Ten in the 1995 season.

Senior Paul Montague, Jr. competes during the still rings event at the Sports Pavilion on Jan. 30.

Sam Harper, Daily File Photo

Senior Paul Montague, Jr. competes during the still rings event at the Sports Pavilion on Jan. 30.

Thomas Jaakola

Entering the Big Ten Championships this weekend, the Gophers have a chance to do something they haven’t done in nearly 20 years.
 
 
Minnesota is ranked No. 4 in the country with only one team from the Big Ten ranked ahead, Ohio State. The Gophers haven’t finished in the top two at the conference meet since taking the title in 1995.
 
 
“I believe we have the capability to do so,” head coach Mike Burns said. “We’re going to have to go out and earn it. We’re not just going to give away anything. It’s going to be a battle royale for sure at the Big Ten Championships.”
 
 
The No. 3 Buckeyes average 438.829 points per game, while Minnesota averages 433.289. The Gophers will need to have one of their best meets of the season to surpass
 
 
Ohio State and will face strong competition from No. 5 Illinois, No. 7 Nebraska, No. 8 Iowa, No. 9 Penn State and No. 10 Michigan.
 
 
“We probably have to hit our highest hit percentage of the year,” Burns said
 
 
The Gophers finished fourth in the Big Ten last year despite competing with a large group of freshmen. A year later, the team has matured and is prepared to build off last season.
 
 
“This team really has an incredible team chemistry,” Burns said. “I think it was sort of born from the team last year. It was really the beginning of a different era. Everything we do is being done for a reason, and it’s all kind of culminating here at the end of the year.”
 
 
Many of the team’s gymnasts have developed this year to make the team even stronger, including junior Zach Liebler.
 
 
The Pine Island, Minn., native is the top-ranked gymnast on the floor exercise this season with an average score of 15.500.
 
 
Sophomore Yaroslav Pochinka has improved to enter the Big Ten Championships as the No. 2 gymnast on the vault with an average score of 14.988.
 
 
Senior Paul Montague Jr. is also scoring well heading into the meet, as he took first on the still rings with a score of 15.050 against Nebraska. He also placed first at the same meet in the parallel bars with a score of 15.250.
 
 
“I definitely feel something in this team this year [different] than the past three teams I’ve been on,” Montague said. “This team has just got it. Our gymnastics looks good.
 
 
We’re comfortable out there on the mat when we get into that meet setting. Once we get going, it’s infectious.”
 
 
Sophomores Alex Wittenberg, Tristan Duran and Joel Gagnon help round out the team’s competitors, along with freshman Justin Karstadt.
 
 
Together the team is looking to improve on last year’s finish and place top three in the Big Ten for the first time since 2013.
 
 
Placing higher would give the Gophers their best conference finish under Burns.
 
 
“Comparing this year to last year, I feel like it’s so much more competitive within our own team. We’ve really risen up to a new level,” Gagnon said. “Throughout the year, our standards have just been so much higher.”