The Gophers track and field teams are nearing the end of the indoor season.
The Big Ten indoor championships in Lincoln, Neb. this weekend is one of the last meets for the men and women.
The men’s team has a four-year history of dominance in the Big Ten conference since Steve Plasencia took over as head coach in 2008.
The No. 8 Gophers have won five of six championships combined with outdoor. An indoor win this year would mean four straight trophies.
Minnesota is currently the top-ranked Big Ten team in the nation at No. 8, followed by No. 11 Indiana, No. 13 Ohio State and No. 15 Nebraska.
“We know that Nebraska coming into this is a quality, quality team. Indiana has done some really good things and so has Ohio State,” Plasencia said. “I know that this year the top talent is more spread out between different teams than it is in a lot of years, so I think it is going to be a real fight for the top spots.”
Although the team returns several point-scorers from last season, a few will not compete. Ben Blankenship, the two-time consecutive one-mile-run champion and anchor of the victorious distance-medley-relay team, is out with a stress-fractured sacrum.
Plasencia said his production will be difficult to replace.
“You don’t step in for Ben Blakenship or a guy who is one of the top guys in the country. There is just nobody that can do that,” Plasencia said.
Blankenship’s presence may be missed, but six-time All-American Hassan Mead will compete at full strength for this year’s indoor championships.
“We have a much more healthy Hassan Mead this year, and we are looking forward to having him be ready to go, and it seems like he is very ready to go,” Plasencia added.
Mead will compete in both the 3,000-meter run and the 5,000 during the two-day competition.
“This is the first [Big Ten indoor championships] in about two years where I am ready to contribute,” Mead said. “I would love to help out the team and get one more Big Ten indoor championship before I exit out.”
Middle-distance runner Harun Abda is another athlete to watch at the championships. He is the two-time consecutive winner of the 600-meter run.
On the field, Micah Hegerle’s Big Ten outlook is promising, considering his weight throw distance at last weekend’s Snowshoe Open ranks first in the conference this season.
The defending champion’s 21.95-meter throw is the fifth farthest in the nation as well as a school record and NCAA automatic qualifying mark.
“It’s a tough conference this year with Nebraska, and every point we can get is really important,” Hegerle said. “Even if I don’t win, just to get points is big for the team.”
Women return no champions
The women face a tough battle for a Big Ten indoor crown, as their only titleholder from last year graduated.
Sam Sonnenberg won the pole vault a season ago. Her victory solidified Minnesota’s four-year dominance in the event.
Adding a fifth year to that total will prove difficult. The current squad is comprised of a redshirt freshman, two true freshmen and a senior.
“The pole vault is an area that we’re developing,” head coach Matt Bingle said. “We’ve got young talent there.”
Becca Pilkerton is the veteran on pole vault. She placed third at the last Big Ten with a vault of 13 feet, 3 1/2 inches but has cleared nowhere near that height yet this season.
The Gophers’ 73 points last year trailed Ohio State’s 122.5 and Penn State’s 86.
Ohio State will likely be the toughest opponent this year as well. It is currently the highest ranked Big Ten team in the nation at No. 10. Minnesota is unranked by the United States Track and Field and Cross Country Coaches Association.
“The expectation for this weekend is that they are going to go in there and they are going to fight like crazy,” Bingle said. “And represent this team and this University in the way it should be represented.”
Some important names left off the roster are Steph Price, Alena Brooks and Todea-Kay Willis. Brooks hurt her hamstring while walking off the track. Willis will redshirt the indoor season with an undisclosed injury.
Price placed third in both the 3,000 and the 5,000 last year. Brooks took third in the 400 and eighth in the 600. Willis finished second in the long jump and seventh in the triple jump.
Together, those three athletes tallied 29 points for Minnesota.
“We’ve got a lot of significant injuries. Some of our best kids aren’t going to even be at the meet,” Bingle said. “We’re very young. When you’re young and you have significant injuries, you’re going to take your lumps initially.”
“We feel like we are going to be a lot healthier outside,” Bingle added. “Because we have had about every imaginable thing happen that you could.”
The 2012 Big Ten championships begin Friday and conclude Saturday.
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