Men’s program faces offseason rebuilding challenges

The Gophers concluded a strong season June 5-8 at the NCAA meet.

Minnesota high jumper Wally Ellenson practices at Bierman Athletic Field on Tuesday, April 30, 2013.

Amanda Snyder, Daily File Photo

Minnesota high jumper Wally Ellenson practices at Bierman Athletic Field on Tuesday, April 30, 2013.

Charlie Armitz

The Gophers men’s track and field program isn’t the Midwest powerhouse it was a few years ago, but it took small strides toward regaining its edge this season.

Minnesota earned 11 All-America honors at the NCAA outdoor meet June 5-8 in Eugene, Ore. That’s eight more than  it tallied in 2012, an off-year by the program’s high standards.

The Gophers’ 27th-place finish was one better than their national ranking. The team tied for 12th and earned seven All-America honors — six on the All-America First Team — at the NCAA indoor meet in March.

To avoid another letdown in 2014, Minnesota will have to recover from losing seven All-Americans to graduation. Head coach Steve Plasencia said the recovery process begins with more hands-on coaching in the offseason.

“I want to make myself very available this summer to talk with guys and help guide them … and [make] sure we’re all on the same page and nobody’s falling between the cracks,” Plasencia said. “We can’t afford that right now.”

The Gophers have had steady success at the indoor and outdoor NCAA championships since Plasencia became head coach in 2009. But they haven’t earned a Big Ten title since winning five straight from 2009-11.

Plasencia coaches the team’s distance runners, who struggled throughout the season. He said he’ll have to stay “a little bit more attuned” to his athletes while finding time to rest after a 10-month season of coaching track and cross country.

 The Gophers relied on their depth this year, but they’ll have a tougher time doing so next year because of inexperience.

To compound the challenge, freshman All-American high jumper Wally Ellenson may quit track to focus on his other sport: basketball.

Dual-sport college athletes are rare, especially in major sports such as basketball in which coaches often have greater demands.

“He’s on a basketball scholarship, so he’s a basketball player first,” Plasencia said of Ellenson, who played nine games and 48 minutes last season. “We certainly would like him to continue to be able to jump. I would guess he would probably like to do that as well, but we haven’t had any conversations with Coach [Richard] Pitino or the basketball staff about that.”

Ellenson missed the indoor track season because of basketball, but he made an immediate impact during the outdoor season. He set a personal record with an eighth-place jump of 2.20 meters at the NCAA meet, where he was the only Gophers underclassman to make the All-America First Team.

“As the meets got bigger, he got bigger,” Plasencia said.

If Ellenson comes back, he’ll likely be the Gophers’ best shot to place high at the 2014 outdoor meet. Junior John Simons, who missed that honor by two places at this year’s outdoor meet, will also carry high expectations next season.

Minnesota will return two other outdoor All-Americans  —freshman Goaner Deng and junior Jacob Capek from the 4×400 relay — and one indoor All-American — junior Jon Lehman — in 2014.