Conference championships at stake this weekend for both men and women

by Mark Heise

The wait is over as the long-anticipated Big Ten Championships roll into town for the Minnesota men’s gymnastics team this weekend.

The Gophers will host the conference team championship tonight at the Sports Pavilion and will also host the individual championships Saturday. Both events are slated to start at 7 p.m.

It’s an experience the team will always remember, sophomore Adam Reichow said.

“It going to be pretty crazy in here,” he said. “People will be a lot more excited, and the fact that we get to experience this with our home crowd behind us makes it just that much more special.”

With hosting comes distinct advantages, including additional practice time on the meet equipment, familiarity with the layout and a friendlier environment than on road venues.

Minnesota brought its pommel horse over from the practice facility in Cooke Hall to try to continue improving on the horse during the meet, a score that has not been up to par with the rest of the conference throughout the season.

“It’s like when you go home after being at school for four years,” coach Mike Burns said. “There’s a comfort level there. It’s the same kind of thing. And when you’re comfortable, things tend to be better.”

Aside from pommel horse, the Gophers’ only distinct disadvantage is the difficulty level of their still rings routines. But Minnesota compensates in that area with added precision to its rings routines.

With definite strengths in both vault and floor exercise, the Gophers could be looking to the high bar and parallel bar to keep them near the top.

Reichow said one way his team plans to stay relaxed is by having a team meal. Sophomore Sergei Dmitriev described a few other pregame rituals used to keep loose.

“Our team thing is to kick around the volleyball for awhile and try to just get our minds off of the meet,” he said. “It’s a chance to have fun as a team, but then once it comes time for the team meeting, it’s time for us to focus on the meet.”

And the team has reason to be hungry this weekend against one of its bigger rivals.

The Gophers allowed a win over Michigan to slip out of their hands Feb. 17, a meet that Minnesota led heading into the final event before losing by 0.5 points. Michigan was top-ranked nationally at the time and figures to be one of the favorites to win this weekend.

The Gophers have plenty of reasons to want to prove themselves in the rematch. But Burns said that would not be the focus.

“Here it’s really not about anyone else, it’s just about us,” he said. “We know those other teams are here, but we’re just going to do our thing and the best team should win the meet. We’re counting on that being us.”

Women to Penn State

The Minnesota women’s gymnastics team has back-to-back conference championship aspirations on its mind as the Gophers head to Penn State on Saturday to compete in the Big Ten Championships at 5 p.m.

Minnesota last accomplished that feat in 1988-89, and with such close competition in the conference this season, coach Jim Stephenson said his team could do it again this weekend.

“We fully anticipate to look our best,” he said. “We feel we’ve done everything we can to prepare for this. I’m sure every coach in the Big Ten feels they have a good chance this year. This could be the closest conference championship in the last 15 years.”

The Gophers worked to make minor changes in their routines over just three days of practice this week, and while the change in a short amount of time could be cause for concern among fans, freshman Alexis Russell was quick to dismiss it.

“The changes that we made were honestly minor changes,” she said. “It wasn’t anything too big or anything that we are worried about going into the meet. We’re ready to go.”

Minnesota competed once already this year in State College, Pa., having a rough meet early in the season, putting up just 191.175 points.

But Stephenson didn’t seem too worried, saying the team is ready to turn the page this weekend.

“I grew up in a theatrical family that felt a bad dress rehearsal was the best thing for your performance,” he said. “We learned from our mistakes, and I think we’re prepared to correct those problems.”

Minnesota has solidified all four events, and with strong all-around showings in the last four meets, the Gophers appear ready to peak.

“Everybody knows how to compete at this point,” junior captain Amanda Miles said. “Now it’s just a matter of cleaning up our routines, and then going out and having fun with them. We do much better when we’re relaxed and with the amount of work we’ve put in, there’s no reason we shouldn’t be confident in our routines.”