Gophers go to Big Tens as title favorite

Minnesota is ranked No. 9 in the country but in no way have a championship sealed.

The Minnesota women’s swimming and diving team returns to a special place today as it steps foot on the same pool deck it had nearly destroyed with a shattering performance just a couple of months before.

The Gophers broke seven school records Dec. 1-2 at the Ohio State Invitation, the same site they revisit starting today and running through Saturday to compete for the Big Ten title.

Minnesota enters as the highest nationally ranked team in the conference at No. 9 and has a chance to win the conference crown for the first time since 2000.

“We’re confident, but we’re also aware that there’s great competition we’ll face,” senior Roxane Akradi said. “It’s going to be a fight.”

The Gophers will have to compete against No. 12 Michigan, a surging No. 13 Penn State and last year’s champ No. 19 Indiana. Minnesota did not face any of those teams during the regular season.

The Hoosiers won the title by over 150 points last season while the Gophers finished fourth.

Co-head coach Kelly Kremer would prefer to focus on the task at hand rather than the possibilities of a title run this week in Columbus.

“People are talking about Minnesota, but we’re fourth best right now,” he said.

Still, given the Gophers’ success at Ohio State and their balance of youth and experience, they look poised to improve upon their fourth-place finish of a year ago.

“One of the differences this year is that we’re pretty even-keeled,” junior Jenny Shaughnessy said. “We have a lot of depth that will help.”

That depth begins with those who set the records back in December. Junior Yuen Kobayashi broke her own record in the 1,650-yard freestyle event. Fellow junior Stacy Busack set the school record in the 100 freestyle event while freshmen Jillian Tyler and Molly Belk set school records that same weekend.

The balance has been a strength of the team all season as upperclassmen and underclassmen have all contributed at some point during the season to help Minnesota maintain its highest ranking in school history.

“The youth is just great,” Akradi said. “They came in here right away and embraced the fact that they’re part of the team’s success.”

The younger Gophers will have to adjust to the atmosphere of a championship meet, but their familiarity with the pool will help ease the nerves, Kremer said.

Of course, the championship will come down to points and the Gophers must try to grab as many of those points in the relay events as those races are worth twice as many as the individual events.

“Everyone becomes critical,” Kremer said. “It comes down to putting points on the board.”