The Minnesota men’s track and field team is heading to the Big Ten championships this weekend as four-time defending champions, and the Gophers aren’t planning on giving up their spot at the top.
Since head coach Steve Plasencia took over the program in the summer of 2008, his team is a perfect 4-for-4 in conference title meets, including two consecutive indoor championships.
Minnesota has a long way to go, however, if it intends to capture the longest streak in Big Ten history –– that honor belongs to Wisconsin, which won eight straight last decade.
“Any Big Ten championship is going to be a challenge,” Plasencia said. “The way our guys look at is it is that we’ve been able to capture a very precious title, and we don’t want to let it go. We’re going to do anything in our power we can to hold on to that.”
From the 2000 indoor season to the 2008 indoor season, Wisconsin won every indoor and outdoor title except for 2003 outdoor, a championship the Gophers claimed. The 2002 indoor title was canceled.
Minnesota used a string of impressive Snowshoe Open performances last weekend to vault five places to No. 20 in the latest national poll.
Micah Hegerle and Ryan Todhunter highlighted the performances, landing the Gophers a sweep of Big Ten Athletes of the Week. Hegerle set a new school record in the weight throw, and Todhunter won the 60-meter hurdles.
The depth of the Big Ten this year has to be unsettling for Minnesota as the Gophers prepare for this weekend. Five teams from the conference are currently ranked higher in the national poll, including No. 3 Indiana.
If the Gophers are to overcome teams like the Hoosiers, it will be on team depth, with several individual title contenders.
Notable athletes to watch are the throwers, pole vaulter Ben Peterson, heptathletes Brock Spandl and Joey Schwecke, runners Ben Blankenship, Hassan Mead, Harun Abda and Nick Hutton.
“We’re going to rely on contributions from all areas, as in years past,” Plasencia said.
Women looking for strong showing
While the men’s team relies on depth, the women’s team has several strengths to buoy them this weekend in West Lafayette, Ind.
Head coach Matt Bingle said he expects his team to score considerably well in distance running, pole vaulting and long jumping in the championships.
Nikki Swenson leads the Gophers’ contingency in the mile run, and she will likely run the first leg of the distance medley relay, a team Bingle said could compete with anyone.
The rest of the makeup of that relay team partially depends on whether some women qualify for finals in other events, but the tentative plan is to have Nyoka Giles run the 400-meter leg, followed by Kathryn Ritter in the 800 and Elizabeth Yetzer in the mile.
Yetzer and Steph Price will both run the 3,000-meter.
Arguably the two most important events for the Gophers will be the pole vault and long jump, where Bingle expects his athletes to score in two of the top five spots.
“It’s going to take a team effort really to get everything going, like always. Without those two events, obviously we’re not going to have a shot,” he said.
Sam Sonnenberg and Becca Pilkerton will represent Minnesota in the pole vault, and T-K Willis and Adrienne Thomas will compete in the long jump; all four will look to score big.
“Sam’s been in this spot before; she was an All-American last year,” Bingle said. “She’s been in high pressure before, and she’s done well.”
Alena Brooks will run two events, the 400- and 600-meter, and Bingle said she’s among the top three in both.
Giles will also double, running the 60- and 200-meter dashes.
“She has been training like a rockstar and felt the best she ever has,” Bingle said about Giles. “She had a stress fracture in her back last year and is just now getting back to the point where she feels really good.”
According to Bingle, the top five teams will be Penn State, Ohio State, Indiana, Minnesota and Michigan. No. 13 Michigan is the only Big Ten team ranked in the nation’s top 25, but the Wolverines have not historically had athletes compete in multiple events, which leaves points on the table.
The Gophers will be without top competitors Amy Laskowske (distance), DeAnne Hahn (throwing) and Kylie Peterson (sprints), all of whom have had success in recent conference meets.
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