All seven Gophers earn All-America honors at indoor national championships

The weekend was highlighted by runner-up finishes from Ben Blankenship and Ben Peterson; the lone women's competitor, Sam Sonnenberg, took seventh.
  • Joe Michaud Scorza Daily File Photo
March 21, 2011

The Gophers track & field teams were a perfect 7-for-7 in earning All-America status at the NCAA indoor championships over the weekend.

All six of the men’s team’s participants scored, helping Minnesota to a sixth-place finish, which tied for the highest mark in program history. Sam Sonnenberg also earned All-America honors as the lone Gophers women’s athlete. 

Florida repeated as team champions with 52 points to Minnesota’s 27.

The biggest contributors on the men’s side were Ben Blankenship and Harun Abda. The duo was part of the third-place, schoo-record-setting distance medley relay Friday that also included Travis Burkstrand and Nick Hutton.

Blankenship’s leg in particular was phenomenal for the relay. He clocked a 1,600-meter split time of 3 minutes, 54.61 seconds. The leg is six or seven meters short of a mile, according to head coach Steve Plasencia, but Blankenship’s time is still remarkable.

“He came to play this weekend. If you score points in the national meet, you’ve done a good job,” Plasencia said. “To help out with that many [14] is really impressive.”

Blankenship was also the national runner-up in the 3,000-meters.

Abda, in addition to his relay contributions, also ran to a fifth-place finish in the 800-meter.

“To get into sixth place [as a team] you either have to have a ton of people or people that can do it in more than one event. To do it as successfully as those two guys did it is really gratifying and a credit to both their hard work,” Plasencia said.

Ben Peterson was the national runner-up in the pole vault. After missing his first bar at the opening height, he was clean all the way to the final bar, Plasencia said.

Peterson cleared the 18-foot bar that he’s aspired to all season. The mark actually tied the champion, but Peterson cleared it on his second attempt, while the eventual winner cleared it on his first.

“To step up on the biggest stage of the season and perform above what you’ve done in the past is really a credit to his poise,” Plasencia said. “That was pretty remarkable.”

Micah Hegerle rounded out the All-America slate for the Gophers, placing eighth in the weight throw.

On the women’s side, Sonnenberg didn’t quite get the 14-foot mark she was striving for, but her vault of 13 feet, 11 inches was good enough for seventh place and an All-America selection.

“I was a little surprised just because I actually struggled a lot today during the competition,” Sonnenberg said.

She was down to her final attempt at the opening height but cleared it in a last-chance effort.

“To only have one more attempt at opening height was nerve-racking but I got to the runway and just felt confident that I could do it,” she said.

“I was really happy with how it ended up and I’m super honored to be an All-American again.”

Arkansas junior Tina Sutej won the national title, setting a new women’s record in the process with a height of 14 feet, 7 1/4 inches. She led what Sonnenberg and vaults coach Caroline White called the best field ever in women’s pole vaulting.

Since taking over the men’s track team in the summer of 2008, Plasencia’s impact on the squad has been astounding. The program is currently working on a string of five straight Big Ten championships and will likely be even stronger in the outdoor portion of the season.

Thrower Aaron Studt will return for his outdoor senior season after sitting out the indoor season because he’d expired all four years of eligibility for that season.

Hassan Mead should also be back and capable of contributing at an elite level, Plasencia said.

After finishing eighth last year, the men’s team improved on that mark and tied the best finish in program history. The other sixth place indoor finish came under Roy Griak in 1993.

“We want to be one of the top-10 teams in the nation; that’s really a goal of our program, to embed ourselves in that [list],” Plasencia said.  

“Hopefully with finishes like this a lot of people take note of that. It is big for the program and you never know what’s going to happen next but certainly I like the things that have gone on the past couple of years.”

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