Gophers women head into up-for-grabs Big Tens

Emily Wickstrom

Minnesota’s women’s gymnastics team is expecting the Big Ten Championships to be close.

At last year’s conference championships, the second- through fifth-place teams were separated by just six-tenths of a point. An even closer meet could happen Saturday in Iowa City, Iowa, with five of the seven teams posting very similar high scores.

“We call this meet ‘the Big Ten National Championships,’ ” Gophers co-coach Meg Stephenson said. “Because every school is good.”

Michigan has proven to be the powerhouse team, winning the last six Big Ten titles. Minnesota’s average score ranks third in the conference, with Penn State ranking second.

But Stephenson said the Gophers are going into the meet not worrying about the other teams and knowing they can only control their own performances.

“We need to have a good meet; there’s no question,” she said.

“We have to take advantage of the opportunity we have to improve

upon our score so we can ensure

a trip to postseason.”

A high score would move the Gophers up in the national rankings, putting them in a better position for the NCAA North Central Regionals on April 9.

Minnesota gymnasts said they feel the meet is coming at the perfect time, with their collective confidence level high.

“Our average (score) has steadily increased, which is good,” junior Maria Opsahl said. “We didn’t peak too early and I don’t think we’ve peaked yet. But we’ve definitely been improving.”

Much of this year’s success has been a result of Minnesota having a deeper team than last season. This gives the coaching staff more options and also pushes the gymnasts to work harder to keep their positions, Stephenson said.

Individually for the Gophers, junior Laura Johnson is ranked fourth in the Big Ten in the all-around. Senior Carolyn Yernberg is among the favorites in the vault and floor exercise and she is ranked fifth in both.

Men also at Big Tens

There’s no question Minnesota’s men’s gymnastics team will have a challenge at the Big Ten Championships today and Saturday in Ann Arbor, Mich.

Four of the top five teams in the nation are from the Big Ten, and all six conference schools are ranked in the top 10.

“We could win the meet, we could take second, we could take fifth, we could take sixth – I don’t know,” Gophers coach Mike Burns said. “The Big Ten is so strong it depends on who does the best job.”

Much of the meet’s focus will likely be on senior Guillermo Alvarez, who is a strong contender to win the all-around title. Alvarez will also be the heavy favorite to win the floor exercise, in which he is ranked first in the country and won at last year’s conference meet.

Senior Clinton Mays is another Gophers gymnast with a good chance of placing in the event finals, as he averages a score of 9.700 on the still rings.

Burns said his team is as prepared as it can be for the meet, and he hopes for Minnesota to earn its highest score of the season.

“If we go out and do our job, I’ll be very pleased,” Burns said.

“And that means hitting a lot of

routines.”