Roman Augustoviz spends Minnesota's winters covering college hockey, specifically the Gophers, and other University of Minnesota sports. During the summer, he writes about the WNBA's Minnesota Lynx, with a dose of U sports sprinkled in. Follow him on Twitter @RomanStrib.
The Gophers are not among the favorites in the Big Ten men's swimming and diving meet, which opens a four-day run on Wednesday in Iowa City.
Michigan is the four-time defending champion and rated No. 5 nationally by the College Swimming Coaches Association of America. Ohio State is No. 8, Indiana No. 9, Wisconsin No. 19, Iowa No. 21 -- then the Gophers at No. 22 -- and Penn St. at No. 24.
But the Gophers are excited, nonetheless. "We gear up for the Big Tens and then, hopefully, the NCAAs as well," said senior CJ Smith, a three-time All-America swimmer.
He was fourth in the 1,650-yard freestyle in the conference meet a year ago and has the Gophers' top times in the 500, 1,000 and 1,650 this season.
The Gophers were fourth in the 2014 conference meet, behind the Wolverines, Indiana and Ohio State. They have won nine Big Ten titles, but none since 2007. They won five the last decade: 2001, '02, '04, '05 and '07.
This season the team was 6-3 in dual meets, 3-1 versus conference opponents.
"As a whole, I think our team is really ready to have a great meet coming up," freshman Conner McHugh said.
Other seniors who could make conference finals this year are Brandon Hatanaka, 10th in the 400 IM last year, and Chris Johnson, 10th in the 200 backstroke.
Junior Manny Pollard is the team's top diver. He was Big Ten diver of the week twice this season. Last year he was third in platform diving in the conference meet, sixth in 1-meter diving and ninth in 3-meter. Classmate Dylan Zoe was seventh in platform.
Sophomore Matt Barnard competed in diving at the NCAAs last seaosn, placing 30th on the 3-meter board and 31st on the 1-meter.
Another junior to watch is Logan Redondo, seventh in the 1,650 freestyle last year.
"Our team is really close," sophomore Ian Gordon said. "In all our swim meets, we've had a lot of energy."
Sophomore Daryl Turner is one of the team's most versatile and talented swimmers. He has the best times in the 50 and 100 freestyle, 100 backstroke and 100 butterfly. He won four events in several meets.
He was on three relays in the 2014 NCAA meet. At Big Tens, he was 10th in the 100 freestyle and swam on three relays that placed high: the 400 freestyle relay which was fourth, the 200 medley relay, fifth, and the 400 medley relay, sixth.
"For myself, I'm most excited about the 100 free because I really want to go under 43 [seconds] and make NCAAs," Turner said. "For the team, I'm just really, really excited about what we can do in the relays. We come in as underdogs, but I think we can really perform."
Another sophomore to watch is Jakub Maly, the Big Ten freshman of the year last season. He's real strong in the 200 and 400 IMs. He was fifth in the 400 IM in the conference meet a year ago, eighth in the 200 IM and 10th in the 200 breaststroke. He is from Vienna, Austria, and has a lot of international experience.
Nick Orf, another sophomore, finished eight in the 200 butterfly.
Nebraska was the better team on Tuesday night in its own gym. By far.
The Cornhuskers thumped the Gophers and Amanda Zahui B. by a 74-50 score in a Big Ten game that probably was more important to the struggling home team than the visitors.
Nebraska had lost four of six and was in danger of missing the NCAA tournament. The Gophers had won five in a row and reached 22 wins -- second most in the conference.
And Minnesota came into the game with Zahui B. playing at her peak. Last week she had 39 points and a Big Ten record 29 rebounds in one game and 27 points and 27 rebounds in another.
Against the 'Huskers? Only 12 points, six rebounds.
"It wasn't her best night, give credit to Nebraska," Gophers coach Marlene Stollings said, "they did a good job on her defensively being physical around the basket. It, by far, was not her best night. I thought that they pushed her off the block too easily. She finally got going late, but at that point the score had gotten out of hand."
The Gophers were within 32-28 at halftime, but Nebraska opened the second half on a 20-2 run. Game over.
Nebraska's strategy for stopping Zahui was pretty basic. "Don’t let her catch the ball," Huskers coach Connie Yori said. "I’ve never seen anyone score a basket that doesn’t have the ball in their hands. If you don’t let her catch it, you don’t have to worry about it.
"I thought we played smart.You’re going to give up some shots when you do that, Shae Kelley hit some shots. We provided help off of her and some other kids, but you’re going to give something up. We held a team to 50 points who was averaging 70 to 75 points in conference."
Kelley had 17 points and 13 rebounds, but nobody else really hurt the Cornhuskers.
"You play percentages and we did a good job on [Zahui] and it was a collective effort on her," Yori said. "We don’t have the size to play her in a one-on-one setting. Allie [Havers] primarily guarded her with a lot of help coming. Their job is to make it hard to catch it and so was everyone elses."
It worked so well, Zahui only took nine shots. She made three for six points and had six more points on the free throw line, where she didn't miss.
"Obviously a really good win for us beating an upper tier team," Yori said. "We played really well on both ends. We played our defensive game plan to a "T" and offensively our shot-making was as good as its been since we lost Rachel [Theriot]."
Theriot was the Cornhuskers' equivalent of Rachel Banham, the Gophers star guard out with a knee injury.
Since Theriot suffered a season-ending ankle injury in practice, Nebraska had gone 2-4 until beating the Gophers. Theriot was averaging 16.5 points and 5.2 assists.
Natalie Romeo, a freshman guard averaging seven points, picked up the offense on Tuesday. She made a career-high six three-pointers and had 21 points, 14 above her average.
"Natalie was in the gym [Tuesday] after class and you know, she hasn't shot it that well recently," Yori said. "She's a kid that puts the work in though. She was in there working on her shot. She's the kid that works, so she deserves to make those shots. She was shooting really well in warm-ups."
Nebraska, which had been tied for third in the Big Ten before its recent slide, is now 20-8, 10-7.
"Our seniors across the board were locked in and committed to playing a great game," Yori said. "I’m just really happy for them. Does this put us in the NCAA tournament? I’m sure that question will be asked. I’m not on the selection committee but I can't imagine a team with 20 wins and 10 wins in this league that that win didn’t put us in. There are a lot of reasons this was a really good win for us."
The Gophers, who fell from a tie for third in the Big Ten to sixth with the loss, are 22-7, 11-6.
Like following a women's sports team at the U of M? Your probably a happy fan today. Your team won. Maybe in dramatic fashion.
Or do you follow a Gophers men's team? You're probably a little down today. Your team lost.
Here's a look at the highlights and lowlights of this past odd weekend:
1. Swimming and diving team. Gophers became first women's program at U to win four consecutive Big Ten titles when they finished strong in the conference meet at Columbus, Ohio. Junior Kierra Smith won two breaststroke titles, sophomore diver Yu Zhou won the 1- and 3-meter events. Indiana took the lead briefly on last day, but Gophers splashed ahead.
2. Softball team. Went 5-0 in Diamond Devil Invitational in Tempe, Ariz. One win was 4-1 over host Arizona St., ranked No. 19. Gophers were No. 15, could move up couple spots after improving record to 13-1. Their start matches the best-ever in program history, which was last season. Gophers have top three hitters in Big Ten as judged by batting average.
3. Basketball team. Gophers beat Michigan 91-88 in 2 OTs at Barn for first five-game win streak in nine years. Three players had 20 points or more -- Amanda Zahui B. 27, Shae Kelley 23 and Carlie Wagner 21 -- for only fifth time in program history. And Zahui had 27 rebounds, which would have been a Big Ten record except that she broke the record the game before, getting 29 against Iowa last Tuesday.
4. Hockey team. Swept Bemidji State 3-2 and 4-2. Win on Friday came on a goal with under two minutes in the third period by Rachael Bona. Beavers had been 1-0-1 this season vs. Gophers, so this road sweep couldn't be taken for granted.
5. Gymnastics. Gophers beat Iowa State in Ames on Friday and three small-college teams -- Winona State, Hamline and Gustavus -- on Sunday. Junior Lindsay Mable won all-around in both meets, so her streak of all-around titles in a row grows to nine.
Low spots: Tennis team lost to Dartmouth 6-1, in between wins over Drake 5-2 and South Dakota St. 7-0. ... Gophers won only four of the 18 track and field events in the Parents' Day Open.
1. Wrestling. Gophers' string of National Duals titles in a row ended at three when the lost to Cornell 19-17 in quarterfinals in Iowa City. Dylan Ness, unbeaten and ranked No. 1 at 157, also loses his first match of the season.
2. Baseball. Playing on their second weekend of the season, the Gophers go 0-4 against national power Texas. They lose first game 13-2, then get shut out in next three games, 5-0, 5-0, 8-0. Not good for the psyche.
3. Basketball. Richard Pitino's club falls to No. 5 Wisconin 63-53. The loss was not surprising, but a win could have helped the Gophers' postseason chances.
4. Hockey. The Gophers got a split at Penn State when they really needed a sweep. Won first game 2-1, but lost second 4-3 in overtime. It was first loss ever to Nittany Lions and created a logjam at top of Big Ten standings with four teams within two points at the top. Also their seven-game unbeaten streak came to an end (6-0-1).
5. Tennis. After a 7-1 start to their season, Gophers lost to Vanderbilt 4-3 and to Harvard 5-2.
Bright spots: Gymnast Ellis Mannon won the pommel horse competition in the Winter Cup Challenge -- a huge event for college, postcollege and junior gymnasts -- in Las Vegas. ... Gophers won 10 track and field events in Snowshoe Open, last home meet of indoor season.
The game against Colorado State, on paper, was supposed to be a routine win on Sunday for the Gophers softball team. The Rams came in 6-8.
But the Gophers had to battle all seven innings before beating Colorado State 8-5 in the Diamond Devil Invitational. The U is now 13-1, tying last year's team for the best start ever. The 2014 Gophers were 14-1 before suffering their second loss.
But back to Sunday's game. No. 9 hitter Sydney of the Gophers hit a two-run homer in the sixth to tie the score at 5-all.
Then shortstop Tyler Walker, after making a diving catch in the bottom of the sixth to end a bases-loaded threat, hit a bases-clearing single in the top of the seventh inning to put the Gophers ahead 8-5.
The Rams had taken an early 5-1 lead, scoring all of their five runs in the bottom of the second. Batting against lefty starter Nikki Anderson, the Rams opened the inning with a hit batter, a double and took a 1-0 lead on an illegal pitch. An RBI single made it 2-0. After Anderson walked a batter to put runners are first and second with two outs, she was lifted.
Hannah Evanvold, a sophomore in her first appearance this season, came in and the Rams kept the rally going. A wild pitch moved the runners up a base. A walk loaded the bases and another walk brought a run home, so it's 3-0.
Then a single brought in two more runs.
Another pitching change. This time Sara Groenewegen came in, making her second relief appearance this season. She got a strikeout to end the inning.
Groenewegen finished with 11 Ks in 5-1/3 innings. She gave up only two hits and three walks in improving to 7-1.
But this game proved again that the Gophers' pitching -- behind ace Groenewegen, the Big Ten pitcher of the year last season -- can be shaky.
Anderson, the starter, lasted only 1-2/3 innings, gave up four earned runs and three hits. Evanvold got none of the three batters she faced out.
But the No. 15 Gophers, with Groenewegen stringing zeros in the circle, got their bats going at the end.
Erica Meyer was 3-for-4 with two runs scored. Walker got the big clutch in the seventh with two outs. And Hannah Granger went 1-for-3 with two RBI; her one hit gives her a 14-game hitting streak.
The game lasted 2 hours, 47 minutes, making it the Gophers' longest this season. Although it was a pleasant 67 degrees in Tempe.
Next the Gophers play five games in the Citrus Classic in Orlando. They face Mississippi St. and James Madison on Friday, Missouri and Omaha on Saturday and Fordham next Sunday.
* The Gophers are tied with Michigan for the best record in the Big Ten at 13-1. Ohio State is 9-3; the only other conference team with only three losses is Rutgers, but Scarlet Knights have played only five games and are 2-3. Other teams all have at least five losses.
* Top three hitters in conference all Gophers: Hannah Granger, .525, Kaitlyn Richardson, .523 and Erica Meyer, .514. Meyer leads the conference in slugging percentage, 1.057. She has four homers.
* Sara Groenewegen has the best ERA, .071, and is second in wins with her 7-1 record.
Ellis Mannon has had a lot of highs in gymnastics.
The U of M senior from Indianapolis was the NCAA champion in the pommel horse last season.
And, it seems, he's only getting better. Ellis won the pommel horse at the Winter Cup Challenge at the Riviera Hotel and Casino's Royale Pavilion in Las Vegas.
What's the Winter Cup Challenge, a huge event in the sport of gymnastics. It attracts many of the top college, post-college and junior gymnasts hoping to be named to the U.S. national team someday.
Well, Mannon took a step in that direction.
He was tied for the lead in the pommel horse after the preliminaires with a scored of 15.250. Tied with Donathon Bailey of Cal-Berkeley.
On Saturday, in the finals, Mannon was even better with a score of 15.450 for a total of 30.700.
Marvin Kimble of Swiss Turners was next at 30.200 and Bailey tied for third at 30.050.
“Ellis put together his best routine of the season at the biggest meet of the year so far,” said Gophers coach Mike Burns after the preliminaries. “It’s great to see Ellis step up and perform at such a high level with a new, more difficult and complex routine.”
Here's what the Winter Cup Challenge web site says about its importance:
Performances at the 2015 Winter Cup Challenge will help determine the 15 men who will comprise the U.S. Men’s Senior National Team through the 2015 P&G Gymnastics Championships in Indianapolis Aug. 13-16.
The six members of the 2014 World Championships squad, plus the alternate, retain their spots on the national team.
The remaining eight spots will be determined based on the following criteria: the top three ranked all-around athletes who are not already on the senior national team; two based on the National Team Points System; two athletes selected by the Men’s Program Committee; and one selected by the national team coordinator.
Remember, Indianapolis is home to Mannon.
His routine in Saturday night's final is available on YouTube; it's less than a minute long, but tiring to watch as he whips his legs around continuously.
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