For the first time in program history, the Minnesota women's rowing team will go into this weekend's Big Ten championships as the defending conference champs.
Unfortunately, the Gophers are also self-described as the competition's "dark-horse."
"We graduated 14 (rowers) from last year, 12 of whom were in the top boats," Minnesota head coach Wendy Davis said. "Normally, you would not consider us a strong force."
And the young team struggled to gain experience over the course of the spring season this year, as inclement weather continually plagued Minnesota's events.
The team's first two events of the spring were switched from lake events to runs on the Mississippi River, as the original venues were still frozen over.
The Gophers opened the season with a strong scrimmage against Iowa, but were shown up in a dual meet against Michigan and Michigan State.
Currents are the biggest reason that river competitions are not ideal, said senior Christine O'Donnell.
"We don't really know where we are (performance-wise) because we can't compete like we normally would on a lake," she said.
Last weekend, Minnesota was finally able to compete in standing water as the team hosted Kansas on Lake Phalen.
And the results were impressive - the Gophers swept the Jayhawks in seven events, including a 28-second win in the first varsity eight.
The 1V8 boat earned Big Ten Boat of the Week honors for its performance - the first conference honor of the year for Minnesota and just the 10th ever in school history.
Ranked 16th in the nation, the Gophers 1V8 boat is one of the top crews in this weekend's competition.
Only Michigan and Michigan State, ninth and sixth respectively, are ranked higher in the national polls - Wisconsin is unranked but received votes for consideration.
"We're a team to be reckoned with," senior captain Mary Ann Weinzierl said. "It's nice to be recognized, but you can't get too caught up in that."
Instead, Weinzierl and the Gophers have prepared to turn a few heads in Ann Arbor this weekend, where the weather will be dreary according to forecasts.
"It's kind of an advantage (for us) actually," Weinzierl said. "We can row in the rain or any condition."
And rainy it may be on Saturday when the Gophers try to repeat as conference champions.
"We want to try and establish tradition (at Minnesota)," Weinzierl said. "Last year, we got used to the success and we saw what we had to do."
Belleville Lake will host this year's Big Ten championships, which begin at 8 a.m. Saturday - finals should begin around noon.
Minnesota will compete in all six races and each boat must finish in the top two of its heat to advance.
The Gophers won four races last year as the team picked up its first-ever Big Ten championship and Davis earned her second-straight Big Ten Coach of the Year Award.
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