When the Gophers won their second consecutive Big Ten title last year, the entire group — including coaches and mascot Goldy Gopher — celebrated by leaping into the pool.
Coach Kelly Kremer recently told his women’s swimming and diving team to picture that celebration for a minute — and then forget it for a while.
The Gophers have a chance for a three-peat this week, but Kremer doesn’t want them consumed with the outcome.
“There’s a chance we can experience a moment like that,” he said. “But if we don’t take care of the things we need to do to be at our best, then we’ll be in trouble.”
Indiana won three consecutive Big Ten titles from 2009 to 2011, and the Hoosiers loom as the biggest threat to unseat the Gophers. The four-day conference championships open Wednesday at the University of Minnesota Aquatic Center, site of last February’s victory swim for Goldy and the Gophers.
The Gophers’ 2012 Big Ten title, in Iowa City, wasn’t decided until the 21st and final event. Last year the Gophers dominated at home, winning 10 events, including four of the five relays, to distance themselves from second-place Indiana by 160 points.
Having studied this year’s seed times, Kremer knows the No. 13 Gophers will be challenged, especially by No. 11 Indiana, No. 16 Ohio State, No. 18 Purdue, No. 19 Penn State, No. 20 Michigan and No. 25 Wisconsin.
“On paper, this is as close as it gets,” Kremer said.
Experience should help. The Gophers are loaded with veterans who helped capture the past two conference championships.
Maggie Keefer, a senior from Stillwater, is the reigning Big Ten Diver of the Year. She won the 1- and 3-meter competitions last year and placed second in 1-meter diving at the NCAA meet. This week Keefer admitted she was anxious.
“This is how I normally feel,” she said. “I don’t feel that great the week before I go into Big Ten’s. But once it gets going, I know I’m where I need to be.”
Keefer might have her own nerves, but her presence is enough to settle the rest of the team.
“It’s like a hockey coach having the best goalie,” Kremer said. “You have a lot more confidence when you have people like that who have been there and consistently do a great job.”
Last year’s Gophers squad had that in Haley Spencer, who graduated a three-time Big Ten champion in the 200-yard breaststroke. But Gophers sophomore Kierra Smith finished second in that event last year and enters with the conference’s top seed time (2:06.43).
Junior Becca Weiland won the 100 butterfly last year with a school, meet and Big Ten record time of 51.61 seconds. She and senior freestyler Erin Caflisch are back after winning four Big Ten relay titles last year. So is senior Tess Behrens, who won Big Ten titles in the 100 and 200 backstrokes two years ago before finishing behind Indiana’s Brooklyn Snodgrass in those events last year.
Snodgrass was named Big Ten Freshman of the Year, and Indiana’s Lindsay Vrooman was named Big Ten Swimmer of the Year. Now a senior, Vrooman is seeded first in the 500 and 1,650 freestyle, with Gophers junior Kiera Janzen seeded second, waiting to pounce.
“The 500 has grown to be a really competitive event in our conference and across the nation,” Janzen said. “I’m just really looking forward to it. I think it’s going to be an awesome race.”
Minnesota’s big moment last year came on Day 2, when junior Tori Simenec out-touched Penn State’s Merritt Krawczyk by seven-hundredths of a second to win the 200 individual medley.
“That was exciting because Tori came off a relay split the night before that was kind of a rough swim for her,” Kremer said. “I didn’t know how she’d rebound from that. She not only rebounded, she went out and won the Big Ten title in the 200 IM.”
It’ll take more swims like that for the Gophers to three-peat. And the better they perform, the more people they’ll qualify for the NCAA meet at the University Aquatic Center on March 20-22.
The Gophers’ best NCAA finish was ninth, in 2011. They were 10th last year and hope to crack the top eight this year.
“If we get a conference championship, that’s going to be great,” Caflisch said. “And if not, our ultimate goal is still NCAA’s.”