Men aim for big things once Big Tens, NCAAs come to town

David McCoy

Last year’s Big Ten champion Minnesota’s men’s swimming and diving team is looking to make another step upward this season.

The Gophers finished last year 5-0 in the Big Ten and 7-1 overall, and then finished ninth at the NCAA Championships.

This year, coach Dennis Dale’s 20th as head coach, Minnesota has a two-dimensional goal. The Gophers want to repeat as Big Ten champions and place in the top five at the NCAA Championships – something Minnesota has not done since Dale’s second year at the helm.

And playing host to those meets – the Big Ten Championships from Feb. 24 to Feb. 26 and the NCAA Championships from March 24 to March 26 – at the Aquatic Center certainly won’t hurt their chances.

“Now that it’s in our pool, it’s even more essential that we win Big Tens again,” captain Neil Osten said.

Minnesota also held both events in 1994, taking second at Big Tens and seventh at NCAAs.

The last time the men hosted the Big Ten Championships, in 2001, they took first place.

And the last time they hosted the NCAA Championships, in 2000, they took seventh, tying their 1994 and 2003 finishes.

Dale said he is excited about holding the biggest meets this year in his home facility.

“Not having to travel gives us a little edge,” Dale said. “And having a home crowd doesn’t hurt.”

This year, Indiana has been saying it is the favorite to win the Big Ten.

But Osten said the Gophers are returning an even better team than last year, despite it being somewhat younger.

Minnesota is returning eight All-Americans, and has a solid leadership core in captains Justin Mortimer, Sean McCaffrey and Osten.

After taking the year off to train for the Olympics in Athens, Greece, nine-time All-American Mortimer returns as Minnesota’s best swimmer.

Mario Delac and Igor Cerensek, who competed for Croatia in Athens, should provide a spark as well.

With the type of elite swimmers Minnesota has, Mortimer said, the team’s expectations are at the highest level. And if you think the Hoosiers were being confident, listen to Mortimer:

“People put too much focus on Big Tens,” Mortimer said. “Our team is national caliber, and it’s more of a transition to the NCAA meet.

“Winning Big Tens is an afterthought.”

With Indiana basing its Big-Ten-title bragging on its excellent diving squad, new Gophers diving coach Mike Martens said, he hopes his team can do just well enough come February to swing the title Minnesota’s way.

The Gophers have three divers returning from last year’s team and two new ones.

One of those new divers, sophomore transfer Jesse Maple from Alabama, is expected to start contributing immediately.

At last weekend’s intrasquad meet, Maple won two diving events, showing some leadership for his young age.

But with Indiana the biggest obstacle standing in the way of the Gophers’ fourth Big Ten title in five years, Minnesota’s swimmers will be counting on Maple and the other divers to give them the boost they need.

“If there was no diving, we would swim (Indiana) into the gutter,” Martens said. “They put a lot of eggs into the diving basket.

“Hopefully, we can take enough points to tip the scales.”

Women looking up tooUnder new leadership this year, Minnesota’s women’s swimming and diving team is looking to improve on its fifth-place Big Ten and 34th-place NCAA finishes last year.

Terry Nieszner and Kelly Kremer are the new co-coaches of the team, taking over after the retirement of the only other coach the program has had in its varsity years, Jean Freeman.

But unlike many teams who endure coaching changes, Minnesota shouldn’t have as much trouble adjusting to its tutors because both have been with Minnesota for a number of years.

Nieszner had been an assistant coach with the women’s team for the last 27 years, and Kremer was an assistant with the men’s team for the previous eight.

“There isn’t too much adjusting to do, except for some of the administrative work,” Kremer said.

Similar to the men’s team, Nieszner said, her team has two goals – moving up a spot in the Big Ten and breaking the top 20 at NCAAs.

Minnesota’s clear-cut leader this year will be Katy Coombe, a freestyle swimmer who broke the Big Ten record in the 50-yard freestyle last year.

The Gophers are expecting senior captain Abbie Bowden to lead their diving squad. Bowden won two events at the intrasquad meet during the weekend.

“We’re excited to see where we’re going to go,” sophomore Valerie Tukey said.