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Editorial Cartoon: Peace in Gaza
Editorial Cartoon: Peace in Gaza
Published April 19, 2024

FALL SPORTS PREVIEW

. Football | Volleyball | Soccer | Women’s Cross Country | Men’s Cross Country | Rowing

FOOTBALL
Matt Perkins
[email protected]

Minnesota’s football team is coming off back-to-back-to-back bowl wins, but now is looking to improve on the quality of bowl game this season.

The Music City Bowl can be satisfying for only so long before the fans crave more, and after a 5-0 start last season, fans couldn’t have been too satisfied with just a Music City Bowl win.

But the Gophers are prepared for tough competition in the Big Ten, fitted with possibility the best all-around team they have seen in recent years.

Quarterbacks
Minnesota junior quarterback Bryan Cupito will be called on this year to improve his numbers from last season. He threw for 2,097 yards and 14 touchdowns last season, while throwing seven interceptions.

Teammates say Cupito appears more confident on the field this season thanks to a lot of film study. The Gophers will need that confidence to show and his play to improve a bit if they expect to compete in the Big Ten.

Offensive line
The Gophers offensive line is led by 2004 All-American center Greg Eslinger and First-Team All-Big Ten guard Mark Setterstrom.

But the others can’t be overlooked, with Steve Shidell at left tackle, Mike Nicholson at right guard and Tony Brinkhaus at right tackle.

Joe Ainslie, who started the season at right tackle, is out indefinitely after surgery on his right hand.

The big guys up front hope to pave the way for the best running back in the Big Ten, Heisman hopeful Laurence Maroney.

Running backs
Maroney has become one of the best running backs in the country, and now that his good friend Marion Barber III has left for the NFL, he will be the main performer on stage for the Gophers.

He already has 338 yards rushing through two games this season, averaging more than seven yards per carry with four touchdowns.

His backups aren’t bad either. Gary Russell has 133 yards and four touchdowns on just 13 carries and Amir Pinnix has 115 yards on 25 carries.

Wide receivers
Sophomore wide receiver Ernie Wheelwright emerged last season as an impact player for the Gophers, but there were also plenty of dropped balls between him and Jared Ellerson last season.

Cupito will need to use both of them as threats again this season, but will have more options with 6-6 Micah Rucker and Logan Payne emerging as potential targets early this season.

Linebackers
Kyle McKenzie is the most experienced linebacker for the Gophers, but that may not matter.

Sophomore inside linebackers Mike Sherels and John Shevlin have provided an immediate impact to the Gopher defense. Sherels had a team-leading 11 tackles against Tulsa, and already has padded his stats with 16 tackles, one sack, two fumble recoveries and an interception through the Gophers’ first two games.

Defensive line
Gopher nose tackle Anthony Montgomery is no doubt the leader of the Gophers’ defensive front. Helping him out this season are defensive ends Keith Lipka and Steve Davis alongside defensive tackle Mark Losli.

Defensive backfield
Strong safety Brandon Owens and free safety John Pawielski head up a backfield that needs to improve this season, and cornerbacks Trumaine Banks and Jamal Harris round out the secondary.

Overview
The Gophers’ biggest game is going to come against Purdue in week 4, a homecoming game that could make or break their season.

They follow that game with a couple of tough road games at Penn State and Michigan. Michigan didn’t look like itself against Notre Dame this weekend, but they are sure to be back to playing top notch football by the time the Gophers come to town.

If the Gophers can pull off a key win on the road at either Michigan or Iowa, and manage to pull off home wins against Wisconsin and Ohio State, they have a sincere shot at winning the Big Ten this season.

VOLLEYBALL
David McCoy
[email protected]

Led by six seniors, Minnesota’s volleyball team advanced to its second straight Final Four and its first NCAA Championship appearance last season, losing to Stanford in three games.

Those six – four of whom were starters – have left big holes for the Gophers to fill if they hope to get back. Half of Minnesota’s roster of 16 is brand new to the team, making for some intense battles for starting spots.

“We’re not sure about much of any of it, actually,” coach Mike Hebert said. “We’ve got to get about the business of doing that right away here – figuring out our lineup.”

Setter
The Gophers return junior setter Kelly Bowman, a first-team All-American last season who started along with departed setter Lindsey Taatjes in the 6-2 formation.

Whether Minnesota will stick with a two-setter rotation or will use only Bowman remains to be determined, Hebert said.

That decision depends on the early play of freshman Rachel Hartmann, who came to the Gophers as the second-ranked high school setter in the country and an All-American.

Outside hitter
Minnesota loses 3,223 career kills from starting outside hitters Erin Martin and Trisha Bratford, making the outside hitter position the Gophers’ biggest question mark in 2005.

Players competing for the starting spots include transfers Meghan Cumpston and Sarah Florian, and freshmen Kyla Roehrig and Katie Vatterrodt – the 20th and 18th ranked high school seniors in the nation last year by Prepvolleyball.com.

Cumpston and Florian have seen limited time thus far. Cumpston gashed her knee open in the first day of practice Aug. 12 and Florian came in a week and a half later than the rest of the team after transferring from Southern California. Hebert said he decided to keep her out of action thus far in fairness to the rest of the team.

Middle blocker
Minnesota is strongest up the middle, where it returns all three players who contributed during the team’s NCAA Championship run last season. The most notable starter is junior Meredith Nelson, who led the Gophers in blocks each of the past two seasons and was third on the team in kills with 349 last year. Nelson leads Minnesota with 71 kills.

Senior Jessica Byrnes slid over to the right side of the formation this season and is battling with sophomore Jessy Jones for the other starting gig next to Nelson.

Senior Athena Mallakis will see significant playing time as well.

Defense
Minnesota prides itself on playing solid defense, and led by senior libero Paula Gentil, the Gophers look to be strong in that category again.

Gentil, Minnesota’s first three-time All-American, has been the Big Ten defensive player of the year each of the past three seasons.

Last year Gentil set a new single-season NCAA digs record with 924, the Big Ten career digs record with 2,154 and the single-match record with 47.

Junior defensive specialist Malama (formerly Marci) Peniata is another strong player defensively for the Gophers and played significant minutes last year. She was fourth on the team in digs and also one of Minnesota’s best from behind the service line.

With Lisa Reinhart now gone, Peniata, who was the Kansas State Tournament Most Valuable Player last weekend, will be called upon to play a bigger role along with freshmen Michele Wilber and Kelly Fallon.

Overview
Byrnes acknowledged that Minnesota doesn’t quite have the same star power it’s had in years past, but said the team makes up for it in possibly an even more important area.

“In the past, our starters have had not a lot behind them on the bench,” middle blocker Jessica Byrnes said. “But now, everyone on our bench is as good as someone on the floor. That makes our team so much better because we’re so unpredictable.”

SOCCER
Emily Wickstrom
[email protected]

After finishing 10th in the Big Ten in 2004, Minnesota’s soccer team hopes to significantly improve this season across the board.

Forward
Last year’s Gophers scored just 18 goals in conference play, which tied for last in the Big Ten.

Much of Minnesota’s scoring woes had to do with its lack of depth, as coach Mikki Denney Wright had only two healthy forwards to play up top.

But this year’s team will have the opposite problem, as Minnesota has six or more players to rotate in at forward.

Freshman Lindsey Schwartz has been Minnesota’s strongest offensive player five games into the season. She leads the team with four goals and nine points.

Fellow rookies Jamie Cheever and Marti Klinsing have also been impressive early in the season, and join Schwartz in the starting lineup. Senior Becky Dellaria, who had 12 points in 2004, will also see significant minutes.

Midfield
Denney Wright said she felt last year’s Gophers really struggled in the midfield, but that should change in 2005.

Top recruit Kelsey Hood jumped right into the starting lineup to give Minnesota a physical presence in the middle.

“She has the potential to be one of the best players that’s ever been at Minnesota,” Denney Wright said of Hood.

Sophomore Megan Fightmaster, who was hurt much of last season, and freshmen Kaitlin Wagner will play the other midfield positions for the Gophers, with freshman Ashley Seeler adding some depth.

Defense
Defense is the only field position where the Gophers have significant experience returning from 2004.

Sophomores Hailey McCarthy and Allison Kempainen are back to anchor Minnesota’s defense, and are joined in the starting lineup by freshmen Carlie Edwards and Clare Grimwood.

Grimwood has two assists so far this year.

Seniors Tierney Palmer-Klein and Nicki Burnie are also returning, and add some veteran experience to a young team.

“Those seniors have added some valuable minutes,” Denney Wright said. “They’ve made us better.”

Goalie
This season will be senior Molly Schneider’s second year in goal for Minnesota after transferring from Wisconsin-Milwaukee.

Schneider posted a 1.43 goals-against average in 2004 while playing every minute – a significant improvement for the Gophers from the year before.

“(Schneider) is a leader for us both on and off the field,” Denney Wright said. “She’s very important to the success of our program.”

Redshirt freshman Lindsey Dare will back Schneider up as Minnesota’s second goalie.

Overview
Qualifying for both the Big Ten and NCAA tournaments are the Gophers’ definite goals.

Denney Wright has reason for optimism after bringing in one of the strongest freshman classes in school history. Many rookies are already significantly contributing to Minnesota’s early success.

“It says so much to have eight (freshmen) making an immediate impact,” Denney Wright said. “This is a special group.”

WOMEN’S CROSS COUNTRY
C.J. Spang
[email protected]

Being a leader doesn’t necessarily mean being a senior.

For Minnesota’s women’s cross country team, team leadership will come from a variety of people, including sophomore Ladia Albertson-Junkans.

The sophomore standout, who was voted rookie of the year last season by her teammates, is the Gopher’s No. 2 runner behind senior Lauren Williams.

Along with Williams, Albertson-Junkans will be looked to for leadership on a team that is stocked with underclassmen.

There are 18 freshmen on Minnesota’s roster looking to make one of the 12 traveling spots, just like Albertson-Junkans a year ago.

Coach Gary Wilson will be looking for some of these freshmen to step up and make the traveling squad.

“I think it’s a very, very good freshmen class,” coach Wilson said. “It usually takes a good year for them to get their feet underneath them, but they have been doing a great job.”

Luckily for them, they have someone to look to for advice on how to deal with the pressure and nerves of running a Division I race as a freshman.

“I think the biggest thing (to being a leader) is to always keep a smile on my face,” Albertson-Junkans said. “Running has its ups and downs but it’s all about the success in the end and if you can keep that positive attitude then you’ll be able to have that success.”

For Albertson-Junkans, her biggest challenge as a freshman was overcoming the nerves that came with the stigma of running a Division I race.

She said she felt burnt out for the last few kilometers of a race because she was so worked up going into a race.

“I just want to help remind them that they can relax,” Albertson-Junkans said. “I can say it as much as I want to, but they have to feel it.”

Freshman Danielle Ashford has already been looking to Albertson-Junkans for guidance.

“Before the race, Ladia gave me some advice and I took it and the race went well for me,” Ashford said.

Albertson-Junkans said, “I told her to go out at a more patient and conservative pace, which is coach Wilson’s philosophy. She’s a very powerful runner and can use that to finish strong instead of flying out of the gates.”

Ashford only ran one year of cross country in high school. She came to the University for academics and then walked-on to the cross country team.

Another walk-on freshman, Kristin Johansen, also performed well in the intrasquad scrimmage, finishing in the top 10 – a very promising sight for a young team that hasn’t reached the NCAA Championships since 2001.

With such talented youth, the Gophers may be the surprise team in the Big Ten.

ñChris Lempesis contributed to this report

MEN’S CROSS COUNTRY
Chris Lempesis
[email protected]

With only a quarter of its 20-runner roster consisting of upperclassmen, you might think Minnesota’s men’s cross country team is looking to the 2005 season as a rebuilding year.

That, however, is not the case, as the Gophers – who have advanced to eight straight NCAA Championships – still believe they are capable of extending their streak to nine.

Actually, just getting back to the NCAAs isn’t even enough, they said.

“I don’t even think it’s fair to say that’s the ultimate goal,” senior Erik Grumstrup said. “I think we have higher expectations than that. Getting to the national meet, to be honest with you, it’s sort of expected now and we expect it of ourselves.”

Grumstrup, along with senior All-American Ryan Malmin, will be looked upon to lead the way until the underclassmen, including 10 freshmen, get their feet wet.

Malmin appears to be set to take over the No. 1 spot vacated by two-time All-American Andrew Carlson with Grumstrup not too far behind on the depth chart.

Junior Antonio Vega was expected to be in that top group but he’s out for at least the early part of the year with a back injury. There is no timetable for his return.

Coach Steve Plasencia said that while this group of leaders might be small, he is sure of their abilities.

“With certain teams, I’d be worried about the leadership situation because of the fact that (we have), what was it, 15 underclassmen – freshmen and sophomores,” he said.

“(But) three of the guys who are coming back are All-Americans in cross country and track and reasonably good people and smart guys.”

The team is equally confident in a group of talented underclassmen.

Malmin mentioned a group of young runners which included sophomore Justin Grunewald and freshmen Ben Puhl and Luke Walker – all of whom should be in the top group with Malmin, Grumstrup and Vega.

The most anticipated underclassman, though, is freshman Chris Rombough, a two-time Wisconsin Division I high school state champion who also finished fifth in the 2004 Foot Locker Nationals.

“He was a highly recruited guy and so we feel fortunate that he chose the University of Minnesota,” Plasencia said. “We decided that we would not redshirt him this fall and that we would use him right away.”

Plasencia said he decided not to redshirt Rombough because of Vega’s injury and “he’s ready to run at the Division I level.”

Malmin, for one, said he’s looking forward to seeing Rombough.

“He’s definitely unproven on the college scene so far,” Malmin said. “But he’ll be fun to watch and see what he can do.”

The Gophers are equally excited about hosting the Big Ten championships.

“It only comes around once every 10 years,” Plasencia said. “So certainly we get up for the end of the year and the Big Ten meet is always a tough grind and a tough fight.”

How well Minnesota gets up for the Big Tens – and the meets that follow – will determine whether the streak lives or dies.

ROWING
Zach Eisendrath
[email protected]

Last season, Minnesota’s rowing team accomplished more than in any other season in program history.

But the team is by no means satisfied by the way last season ended.

In their final regular season event last spring, the Gophers – in their only home race of the season – upset No. 15 UCLA. With the victory, the Gophers finished the season as the 15th ranked team in the nation, the highest ranking in program history.

“We were right on the cusp last season,” assistant coach Libby Sharrow said. “(A bid) looked favorable, but the committee made their decision. (Being rejected from the tournament) helped the team focus over the summer. We are very excited. The team has shown up in the fall ready to go physically and psychologically,”

Usually finishing fifth out of seven teams is a disappointment, but that was not the case last year during the Big Ten Rowing Championships. Incredibly, six of the seven teams in the competition were nationally ranked in the top 20. The Gophers finished behind only nationally ranked No. 3 Michigan, No. 4 Ohio State, No. 7 Michigan State, and slightly behind No. 14 Wisconsin.

After the Big Ten Championships, the Gophers felt they had a legitimate chance of getting a bid into the NCAA tournament.

Twelve teams receive bids to bring three boats to the tournament. They can bring their first varsity eight, second varsity eight (eight women row per boat) and first varsity four (four female rowers).

Four at-large bids are also handed out by the NCAA to allow a total of 16 teams to compete in first varsity eight competition. Considering they finished 15th in the nation and there are 16 invites, the Gophers felt they had done what was necessary to receive a bid.

The NCAA tournament committee on the other hand, did not.

After being on the bubble and not getting in, the team is hungrier than ever before.

The team’s success will start and end by the example set by senior captain Cheryl Wick.

In a team-oriented sport, each rower has an equal obligation to come through for her fellow teammates. Wick’s role is to show her fellow teammates not just how to improve on the water, but also how to represent Minnesota off the water.

According to Sharrow, individuals are the building blocks to the team’s overall success, and Wick is just one person on an unselfish team.

“Cheryl is a great example of a person who is a great leader. She is a diligent worker who works very hard and trains smart. However, she is just one of the people that make the team.”

Wick looks to build upon last season’s individual success in which she was named to the Rowing Coaches Association’s All-Region Team. She also was a first-team All-Central Region selection.

In addition to her on-the-water success, she set a strong example off water by being named to the Academic All-Big Ten team in spring.

The Gophers kick off the fall season Oct. 1 with the Head of the Mississippi. The race can be seen at River Flats Park, right behind Coffman Union.

Minnesota will host the Big Ten Women’s Rowing Championships starting April 29. The event will be at Lake Phalen in St. Paul.

The team also is finalizing plans for its own rowing facility which should be completed next year. The facility will be a helpful tool for the team, but will also include programming for public access.

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