COLUMBUS, Ohio, February 18. THE 2007 Big Ten men's swimming and diving championships came down to the final event for the second time in three years. And just like 2005 Big Ten Championships, Minnesota came out on top in dramatic fashion. The Gophers' 400 freestyle relay team pulled out a clutch win in the meet's final event, the 400 freestyle relay, to secure the team title with a narrow four-point victory. Minnesota finished with 612.5 points, followed by Michigan (608.5), Ohio State (495) and Indiana (494). Minnesota has won five Big Ten titles in the last seven years (2001, 2002, 2004, 2005, 2007).
Trailing Michigan by six points entering the 400 free relay, Minnesota had to win the event to gain the conference championship and the team of Igor Cerensek, Tyler Schmidt, Mario Delac and Mike Woodson came through in a time of 2:52.83. Northwestern finished second in 2:52.99 despite featuring the top two finishers in the 100 free earlier in the night (Bruno Barbic and Kyle Bubolz) and Big Ten record holder in the 100 free, Matt Grevers. However, the Gophers were up to the challenge. The Gophers picked up 40 team points while Michigan finished fourth to score 30 points, giving Minnesota the four-point win. Cerensek took the lead leg out in 43.68 and trailed Grevers of Northwestern who went out in 43.15. But a sizzling second leg of 42.58 by Schmidt put the two teams neck-and-neck entering the third leg where Delac opened a small gap on Northwestern's Eric Nilsson. Delac's 43.39 split gave Woodson a body length lead and he was able to hold off the Wildcats' Kyle Bubolz over the final 100 yards. The victory gave Minnesota four straight Big Ten 400 free relay titles.
"I was extremely fired up and my teammates on the relay…we are all great friends," Woodson said. "To win that race is awesome. I wasn't expected to be put on the anchor leg but I took off and we won. I took off the first 50 as fast as I possibly could and everything just went from there."
"Before last relay, I was really tired. I was drained from all the races," Cerensek said. "We talked about it as a team, the four guys. We said that this is our championship. We have to take it. We have to win no matter what. We pushed feelings and physical pain aside won like we are capable of. I did my best. (Woodson) was amazing at the end. I felt like I was right there with him in the water. I was cheering as loud as I could. It was unbelievable."
The title is the ninth overall for Minnesota and the seventh for head coach Dennis Dale in his 22-year tenure. The Big Ten title is the University of Minnesota's first conference championship of the 2006-07 season and the 159th regular season championship amongst all sports.
"It was a meet we thought we had a chance to win," Dale said. "We swam awesome. Every night we did better than the day before. Each session we swam better than the session before."
Michigan swam so well. I thought our chances were an uphill battle but our guys never gave up. We thought up to the end we could win. We beat a great Northwestern relay at the end and a great Michigan team. We snuck this title in there. Michigan team did a great job. We are very fortunate to win."
Minnesota began the finals with an amazing swim from sophomore walk-on Mike Holmes. Holmes dropped 21 seconds off his lifetime-best and automatically qualified him for the NCAA Championships en route to a runner-up finish in 14:58.20. A late charge from Michigan's Matt Patton earned hiim the title in 14:54.27. Holmes' swim is also the second-fastest in school history. Minnesota also received a career-best swim from Ray Betuzzi in the fourth of five heats of the 1650. Betuzzi clocked a 15:13.88 to place seventh overall and provisionally qualified him for the NCAA meet. Zach Wood took 11th place in 15:21.86. Minnesota ran up 35 points in the event but Michigan took three of the top five spots and five Wolverines scored overall to pick up 55 points in the event, opening a 22-point margin. Other Gophers swimming in the 1650 were Nico Zebley (18th, 15:36.44) and Fabian Toth (34th, 15:58.49).
In the 200 backstroke, David Plummer dropped .04 seconds off his prelim time to earn a fourth place finish in 1:43.16. The Gophers received strong performances from their two consolation finalists. Russ Payne won the consolation final to grab ninth place in a career-best 1:45.09. Dan Berve, who dropped two seconds off his career-best in the prelims, dropped another second and a half to place 10th in 1:45.79. Northwestern's Matt Grevers crushed the Big Ten record by over two seconds in 1:39.53. The Gophers grabbed 31 points to 16 by Michigan and pulled within seven points in the team race (476-469). Ohio State remained in third with 392 points.
The Gophers shot into the team lead following the 100 freestyle, scoring 43.5 points. Igor Cerensek tied Michigan's Bobby Savulich for third place in 43.39 and Tyler Schmidt took fifth place in a career-best 43.63. Both Gopher times are NCAA B cuts. Cerensek missed the automatic cut by just .04 seconds. Both Gophers also made significant time drops from the prelims (Cerensek – 43.81 to 43.39; Schmidt – 43.93 to 43.63). Cerensek finishes his Big Ten career as a finalist in each of his 12 individual events at the Big Ten Championships. Northwestern's Bruno Barbic took the title in 43.14. The Gophers also had three in the consolation final. Mario Delac finished 11th in 44.27 to secure six points. Mike Woodson and Ales Volcansek ended in a three-way tie for 12th with Purdue's John Schmitt in 44.38, a career-best for Woodson. The Wolverines scored 27.5 points but the Gophers still took lead by nine points (512.5-503.5) in the tight battle for the team title.
Drew Knoechel posted a solid swim in the finals of the 200 breaststroke, finishing fifth in 1:54.06. It also marked the best Big Ten individual finish of his career. Jason Timmer took over two seconds off his career-best time from the prelims, going a sizzling 1:57.74 to win the consolation final and take ninth place. The race was even more important as he beat Michigan's Grant Burtch, who took second in the consolation final (1:59.69). Timmer's time was the third-fastest overall in the event. Northwestern's Mike Alexandrov blew away the field, crushing his own Big Ten record by over two seconds in 1:52.14. Both Minnesota and Michigan accumulated 23 points in the event, keeping Minnesota's lead at nine heading into the 200 butterfly, where Michigan had a huge advantage with three finalists.
Without a finalist in the 200 butterfly, Minnesota needed strong swims from its four consolation finalists and the Gophers delivered. Hiro Sugimoto dropped his career-best time again, winning the consolation final in 1:46.94, an NCAA B cut time. Alex Wold was right behind in 10th in 1:47.44 and Adam Weis clocked a career-best 1:48.55 to place 12th. Zach Wood rounded out the Minnesota scoring in 1:53.41. Minnesota sat and watched the championship final featuring three Wolverines after racking up 22 points in the B Final. Alex Vanderkaay won the event for the Wolverines in 1:43.29 and had swimmers finish third and fifth to score 52 team points. Michigan took a 21-point lead after the event.
The Gophers scored 15 points in the platform diving event as Cole Young finished ninth with a tally of 287.40 and Shaun Kennedy placed 11th with a score of 284.25. Young scored in all three diving events while Kennedy finaled in the one-meter and scored on the platform. The 15 points pulled Minnesota within six points entering the final event of the meet (578.5-572.5), the 400 freestyle relay.
Cerensek, Schmidt, Woodson and Delac were named First Team All-Big Ten while Holmes, Volcansek and Evan Bernier were named Second Team All-Big Ten. Cerensek was the Gophers' top scorer of the Championships, contributing 41.5 points.
"This was a very special ending to an amazing meet," assistant coach Bill Tramel said. "Every kid on this team can say that they had a part of this championship. It is truly phenomenal."
Minnesota secured the 2005 Big Ten title in similar fashion. The Gophers trailed Indiana by five points entering the 400 free relay when Cerensek chased down a Northwestern swimmer in the final leg of the relay to give Minnesota a three-point win over the Hoosiers. It was the closest meet since 1948.
"This was even crazier than 2005," Dale said. "This meet, the 400 free relay win was more of an upset. I thought we would win in 2005. We had the personnel to do it. Northwestern was better personnel-wise this year and we still did it. It was an upset."