Seventeen individual Big Ten championships, 28 All-American awards and three national titles.
That’s how much last year’s dominant senior trio of P.J. Bogart, Derek Williams and Bernie Zeruhn contributed to the Minnesota men’s swimming and diving team in their careers.
All three were major components of the Gopher’s 1995-96 Big Ten Championship squad.
That team captured the elusive conference crown last year, ending Michigan’s 10-year dominance. Before last season, the Gophers had played bridesmaid to the Wolverines in seven consecutive years.
This season Minnesota’s goals may be a little more down-to-earth after the exodus of the team’s top three swimmers, but don’t count them out yet.
“We have a chance,” men’s swimming and diving coach Dennis Dale said. “Michigan wants to reclaim their Big Ten title. If anyone in the Big Ten is going to beat them it’s Minnesota. We know they’re good. The question is how good are we.”
Despite the team’s heavy losses, there is reason for optimism for coach Dale’s troops.
On Saturday at the team’s annual intrasquad scrimmage at the University Aquatic Center, Dale said this year’s squad performed so well that it would have almost doubled its score from last season.
Sophomore Martin Zielinski led the Gophers at the meet, winning three heats on the day. He blazed to times of 1:52.52 in the 200-yard backstroke, 49.72 in the 100 and 1:50.46 in the 200 butterfly events. The Bloomington, Minn., native also competed on the first place 200 medley relay team.
“Zielinski was our standout performer,” Dale said. “We were very pleased with him, but we are also strong all the way on down the line.”
All-American Matt Schlessman won the 50 and 200 freestyle events and was on the first-place 400 freestyle relay unit at the intrasquad.
Schlessman, a Gophers tri-captain, has placed 12 times at the Big Ten Championships.
Greek import Manolis Lentaris also won two individual titles and a team relay crown. He took first in the 500 freestyle in 4:40.79, and in the 1,000 freestyle with a time of 8:29.86. The junior was a member of the winning 400 freestyle relay team as well.
Lentaris returns after suffering an injury at the Big Tens that kept him from competing at nationals last year.
Senior Issac Bjorklund, juniors Eriek Hulseman and Jeremy Rients, and freshmen Oscar Godoi, Brian Howard and Yoav Meiri also won events during the intrasquad for the Gophers.
The team’s most glaring weakness, however, is its youth. Minnesota is composed of 12 first-year swimmers. This large group will look to replace the void on the team left by the departure of Bogart, Williams and Zeruhn.
“We think our freshman are real solid,” Dale said. “Our recruiting class is the best ever in Minnesota history.”
Dale is especially high on Godoi, Meiri and Bill Bishop.
Last March, Minnesota took 12th at the NCAA Championships. If this year’s crop of incoming freshman matures quickly, the team could conceivably improve on last season’s showing at nationals. The Gophers are currently ranked 13th in the Speedo America’s Top 25 preseason swimming poll. No. 4 Michigan is the only Big Ten team ranked ahead of Minnesota. No. 19 Indiana, No. 22 Ohio State and No. 23 Iowa also made the poll.
“We think that if things go well, we can finish in the top 10 in nationals,” Dale said.
Minnesota’s first step in achieving that goal is to perform well this weekend in the Tar Heel Invitational on Friday and in a dual meet with North Carolina on Saturday.
Even though the Tar Heels lost to Minnesota twice last season, they are ranked 15th in the nation and didn’t lose anyone to graduation from a year ago.
“We know we are going to have our hands full with North Carolina this weekend,” Dale said.
A few faces from the past will look to help the team from the sidelines this weekend. Former men’s swimmers P.J. Bogart and Derek Williams re-joined the team this season as student coaches after using up their eligibility last year.
So even though the Gophers won’t have their terrific trio from a year ago competing in the pool, two of them will be there in spirit.