Gophers men’s gymnastics heads to Big Ten meet with confidence

Minnesota earned the best team score in the conference in its last competition.

Jalon Stephens yells a chant in between events Saturday at the Sports Pavilion. The Gophers scored the fourth highest team score in program history, defeating Nebraska  435.150-428.100.

Sam Harper

Jalon Stephens yells a chant in between events Saturday at the Sports Pavilion. The Gophers scored the fourth highest team score in program history, defeating Nebraska 435.150-428.100.

Jack White

The Gophers head into the postseason knowing they can outscore any team in the Big Ten.

No. 5 Minnesota scored a Big Ten best 426.950 in its dual against Nebraska before it heads to Champaign, Illinois for the Big Ten Championships on April 7.

“The score indicated that we were on our game that night, which was outstanding,” said head coach Mike Burns. “This is kind of the whole point of our regular season: to get ready for our championship season.”

Minnesota holds the conference best team score and also has a Big Ten Co-Gymnast of the year on its roster.

Sophomore Justin Karstadt earned conference Gymnast of the Year, along with Ohio State’s Jake Martin recently.

Karstadt also won National Gymnast of the Week for his performance against the Cornhuskers. He was named First Team All-Big Ten last season.

No. 3 Ohio State and No. 4 Illinois are the two teams in the conference ranked ahead of Minnesota. The Gophers lost to both teams during the regular season.

“We have too many good teams that are coming into championships,” said junior Jalon Stephens. “It’s a little stressful, but if we do our job, just like we’ve been doing, I think we can come out on top.”

The Gophers lead the Big Ten in three events — the vault, still rings and floor.

Minnesota is coming off a year where it earned a third-place finish in the conference championships. The Gophers return six of eight gymnasts that made it to the finals in the conference championships last season. The team also returned Joel Gagnon, who was an alternate in the finals.

“To be up there with the top dogs, you have to have the same level of difficulty,” said junior Alex Wittenberg. “We don’t want to go to another championship meet and have a good performance but still be underwhelmed with our finish.”

Senior Zach Liebler could not perform in the conference championships a season ago. Liebler — who was named a two-time All-American last season — suffered an illness before the postseason, but he’ll compete at this weekend’s meet.

Minnesota will look to do something this week that it hasn’t done in 22 years.

Though Minnesota has won the conference championship 21 times, the team has not done so since 1995.

The last Gophers gymnast to win the Big Ten Championship for All-Around competition was John Roethlisberger in 1993. Karstadt is only behind OSU’s Martin in the Big Ten for All-Around season average.

“[Karstadt] is kind of a flat-line sort of guy,” Burns said. “That’s what you want in your top guy.”

Minnesota will need to be in the nation’s top 12 after the conference championships in order to make an NCAA qualifier.

Last season, the Gophers made the qualifier and the NCAA Championships as the No. 5 team in the nation.

Burns said he is focused more on the team’s preparation than the pressure of the performance.

“I just want to go out and focus on the process,” Burns said. “If we do that, then no matter where you finish, you’ve got to be happy.”