Splish, splash, Gophers win Big Tens

The Big Ten Men’s Swimming and Diving Championships were at the University.

Matt Perkins

After nearly three days of competition and 20 events, the Big Ten Men’s Swimming and Diving Championships came down to a 25-yard sprint to the finish.

And after 3,524 points were handed out to the 10 teams competing, it was an eight-point swing, meted out in a 10-yard section of the University Aquatic Center, that made all the difference.

Going into the 400-yard freestyle relay, the meet’s final event, Indiana led Minnesota 685-680.

The Gophers’ Igor Cerensek, fueled by a raucous home crowd, surged in the last 10 yards to win the relay and snatch the Big Ten title away from the Hoosiers.

It was Minnesota’s second title in a row and fourth in the last five years.

But this was the only one that came down to the last event.

“We kept saying to ourselves ‘We can’t lose, we can’t lose,’ ” Cerensek said. “These fans are great. They are where I get all my strength. It’s very easy to win when you have a crowd like this.”

The 720-717 victory over the Hoosiers is the closest Big Ten Championship since 1948.

“There is no better way to (win) than by that few points,” senior Terry Silkaitis said. “Emotions were high, this crowd was great.”

Minnesota led Indiana 469-468 when competition began Saturday. But the 100-yard freestyle helped Minnesota expand its narrow margin.

In preliminary competition, Minnesota’s Ales Volcansek edged out Indiana’s Lee Houchin by three-hundredths of a second in a swim-off for the eighth and final spot in the 100 free finals.

“That swim-off was a turning point,” Minnesota coach Dennis Dale said. “When we won the swim-off, I knew we had a chance. This crowd went nuts.”

Added Cerensek, “I probably lost 10 years of my life because my brain cells couldn’t handle it.”

Minnesota’s success in the 100 free continued in the finals when Silkaitis finished first and won Minnesota’s only individual Big Ten title.

The Gophers pulled out to what seemed to be a commanding lead going into platform diving competition, 656-602.

But Minnesota’s lead was short-lived when Indiana’s diving team soared into competition.

Indiana placed four divers in the finals while Minnesota had just John Schmidt and Shaun Kennedy.

The Hoosiers placed all four of their divers in the top five as Kennedy and Schmidt finished sixth and eighth, respectively.

Indiana bagged 83 points in the event, meaning Minnesota had to win the 400 free relay to defend their Big Ten crown.

But the Gophers’ team of Mario Delac, Silkaitis, Adam Mitchell and Cerensek answered the call.

Cerensek caught Northwestern’s David Kormushoff on the last leg of the relay, touching the wall five-tenths of a second ahead and clinching the Big Ten team title for Minnesota.

When the scoreboard showed the results seconds later, it set off a rowdy celebration in which the Gophers hurled Dale into the diving pool, soaking his polo shirt and shorts.

But in what the coach called the most fun he’s ever had at a championship event, it was a fitting finish.

“It’s one of those things that makes your heart go crazy,” Dale said. “But in the end, if you do win, it’s even more exciting.”