MINNEAPOLIS, MN, February 26. AFTER losing the lead for one event late on Friday, Minnesota fought back to regain a one-point lead heading into the championships' final day, reported the Big Ten office, setting up the story of arguably the most exciting Big Ten Championship in history.
Next month the Dorothy L. Sheppard Pool at Minnesota's University Aquatic Center will host the NCAA Championships, but they will be hard pressed to produce a meet as exciting and thrilling as the 2005 Big Ten Men's Swimming and Diving Championships. From the time heats began in the 1,650-yard freestyle at 5:00 p.m., the electricity in the natatorium was palpable. Every race, every stroke could, and would, have a significant impact on the way this meet turned out.
Coming into the evening's events, the host University of Minnesota Golden Gophers held a Speedo-thin lead over the Hoosiers of Indiana University. Minnesota's 469 points came through two days of consistently sending swimmers into finals to challenge for the top points. Indiana's 468 came from earning points by clawing into event finals and dominating the diving boards at every twist and turn. However, despite four divers in the top five off the platform for Indiana, Minnesota came through on the strength of their 400-yard freestyle relay and finding unexpected points in the form of two diving finalists.
Entering the last event of the evening, the 400 freestyle relay, the Hoosiers had scratched and clawed…and dived…their way to a 5 point lead. Indiana came into the meet seeded sixth in this relay but continued its solid performance on the week by holding onto a solid third place, with IU freshman Todd Patrick passing Michigan senior distance specialist Andrew Hurd on the final leg for a lead of about 1/3 second. To give an idea of the heart and soul Indiana was putting into its efforts by now…they got a :42.88 third leg from their 200 BREASTSTROKE champion Kevin Swander. No offense to breaststrokers but you don’t see that everyday.
IU was not going to beat the Minnesota team heads up in this event. The Gophers had put four men into the championship final of the 100 freestyle this same day, including a huge upset win for Gopher senior Terry Silkaitis. There is a six point differential between first and second in the relay and another two back to third. Thus, if Minnesota won the last event it would squeeze past IU into the championship.
But the Hoosiers were not out of it. They just couldn’t control their own destiny. Northwestern controlled it.
The Wildcats were the only squad with the horses to challenge Minnesota and probably would have been considered a strong favorite based on how they had swum through the first five sessions of the championship. But this was the sixth session, where all the excitement was based on comparing where Gophers finished in comparison to Hoosiers. It was like the partisan home crowd had spread pixie dust across the facility that affected all Gopher opponents…except the Hoosiers.
Naturally, in such a dramatic setting there had to be a little twist of delicious irony. The Hoosiers’ fate was in Northwestern’s hands, the same Northwestern squad that is coached by Bob Groseth who began his connection with high end Big Ten swimming working on Doc Counsilman’s staff at Indiana over 35 years ago.
The fans’ pixie dust had apparently gotten to Groseth’s stars—okay, it was more probably the fatigue of three days of records setting performances from sophomore Matt Grevers and freshman Kyle Bubolz simply catching up to them – in the 100 free earlier in the session. In the qualifying Grevers and Bubolz had been a dominant 1-2, with IU’s Colin Russell third. The Gophers four finalist were seeded 4th through 7th. At night, the Northwestern stars dropped to second and fifth, with Russell, improving his morning swim a bit, holding fairly steady at fourth. The Gophers went wild, though, with Silkaitis moving up to the win (though .29 slower than Grever’s morning swim) and sophomore Igor Cerensek up to third.
When it came to the last relay, the Wildcats certainly wanted the win for their own purposes. A win would give them victories in 4 of 5 relays. But under the circumstances that everyone in the building knew, don’t you think Groseth may have also drawn on a little Hoosier history to inspire his charges? Let’s just say that Grevers and Bubolz were the only swimmers to split under 20 seconds and at :41. 78 and :42.56 their relay swims returned to their quality from sessions 1-5. They were magnificent.
Indiana led by 5 entering the last heat of the meet. With NU swimming wonderfully, it was in reality IU that led the team standings through three hundred yards of the final event. NU wins, IU wins. It was that simple.
NU had a margin of .74 seconds entering the last leg. The Wildcats had spent their three individual conference champions on the first three legs in Alexandrov, Bubolz and Grevers though, while the Gophers had saved 100 free bronze winner Cerensek for the end.
Northwestern had freshman David Kormushoff.
No knock on Kormushoff. He had already proved effective as part of the Wildcat winning/Big Ten record setting 200 free relay the first night of the meet, when the Wildcats swam exactly the same athletes and order as in tonight’s 400 relay. But Kormushoff had not even been a finalist in the session, and had not been Groseth’s choice for the final leg of the winning 400 medley relay.
At the 325 the margin was reduced .16 to .58 seconds. At the 350, Northwestern (and IU!) still lead but the margin had been cut another .45 to .13 seconds. That was the last gasp of championship air the Hoosiers would inhale as Cerensek took the lead at the 375 by .06 and kept going, riding on the energy of a home crowd gone wild, to a new Big Ten record of 2:51.24 and the Big Ten Men’s Team Championship for 2005..
Kormushoff had a valiant anchor leg at :43.61(.7 seconds faster than the NU medley anchor, by the way), but it just wasn’t enough to hold off the relentless Cerensek, whose :42.34 was surpassed only by Grevers.
If only the average NFL or NASCAR fan could be dropped into an atmosphere like this. The image of the sport would change for the general public. It was good.
The first final of the night was in the 200-yard backstroke, an event that Minnesota freshman David Plummer surprisingly snatched the fastest preliminary time in, earlier in the day. Despite having only the regular season's sixth fastest time, in his heat Plummer swam to the conference's second best time of the year. Last year's champion Chris DeJong of Michigan was in the field as well, his regular season time and Plummer's prelim time earned both an NCAA automatic qualification. Plummer and DeJong swam in neighboring lanes during the final and drafted off each other through out the race, but it was DeJong who eventually pulled out the victory. DeJong out-touched Plummer with a time of 1:44.70. In third was Purdue's Louis Paul, followed by Minnesota's Adam Mitchell. The top four times were all under the NCAA A-standard. Wisconsin's Adam Mania and Purdue's Romain Maire placed fifth and sixth respectively. Wisconsin's Timothy Liebhold and Michigan's Dan Grenda rounded out the final's field.
The next event on the docket was the 100-yard freestyle. The two top times belonged to underclassman Northwestern teammates, Matt Grevers and Kyle Bubolz. Sophomore Grevers swam the prelim race in 42.62 breaking his own conference record and freshman Bubolz clocked in at 43.35 seconds. Both Wildcats earned NCAA A-standards for their efforts. Also in the field was Friday night's 200-yard free champion, Minnesota's Terry Silkaitis and it was the Gopher who added another title to his championship résumé. In a time of 42.91 seconds, Silkaitis defeated Northwestern's Matt Grevers by nine-hundredths of a second. Grevers' second place finish marks the first time the sophomore has ever lost an individual event in his two year-Big Ten Championships career. Igor Cerensek, one of four Gophers in the final's field, finished third, followed by Indiana's Colin Russell. Wildcat freshman Kyle Bubolz touched the wall in the fifth position with Minnesota's Mario Delac next. Wisconsin Badger Eric Wiesner finished the race in seventh position and the final finisher of the Gopher foursome, Ales Volcansek placed eighth.
The final heat of the 1,650-yard freestyle was up next. The first three heats were swam in-between he end of prelims and the beginning of the finals. The champion was decided only after the completion of the fourth heat. Heading in, last year's champion Peter Vanderkaay stood as the favorite. His time of 14:47.99 stood as the only A-standard met during qualifications and while two other Big Ten swimmers earned trips to join him in the NCAA 1,650 field, Vanderkaay won his third individual title of the championships in a time of 14:44.52, unofficially the second fastest time in the nation this season. Earning NCAA A-standards were Minnesota's Justin Mortimer and Indiana's Sergiy Fesenko. In fourth was Minnesota's Travis Beckerle, followed by Andrew Hurd of Michigan in fifth. The third of four Wolverines in the top-eight, Brendan Neligan finished sixth and teammate Zayd Ma in seventh. Indiana freshman J.K. Koehler finished the heats in eighth.
Indiana's Kevin Swander swam to the fastest preliminary time in the 200-yard breaststroke. His 1:57.61 was the second fastest in the conference this season, behind only Mike Alexandrov of Northwestern, who did not compete in the event. Purdue's Giordan Pogioli was just off the pace finishing second in prelims, but his effort in the finals was not enough to derail Swander's swim to the championship. The win was Indiana's first swimming championship and earned them valuable points to remain close to Minnesota heading into the diving finals. In the race's only automatic qualifying time, Swander touched the wall in 1:56.16. Pogioli finished second, followed by Michigan State's Ian Clutten and Ohio State's Rob Kauscher. Northwestern senior Louis Torres touched the wall fifth, followed closely by Penn State's Kyle Miranda. University of Michigan senior Christian Vanderkaay finished seventh and Nittany Lion Christopher Ippoliti touched eighth.
Heading into the final for the 200-yard butterfly, three men stood at the top. Indiana's Murph Halasz, Michigan's Alex Vanderkaay and Davis Tarwater split the regular season and preliminary's top times amongst them and in the event's final they earned the top spots as well. Tarwater, whose time was under the NCAA A-standard, took home the crown in the event with Halasz in second and Alex Vanderkaay in third. Richard Bryant, one of three Hoosiers in the finals, touched fourth and Purdue's Blake Scholz came in fifth. IU's Scott Tanner placed sixth and Minnesota's Lucas Petersen took seventh and Michigan's Zayd Ma eighth.
The platform diving event had taken on more importance than anyone had anticipated, heading into the 20th event of the championships. With Minnesota holding onto a 54-point lead over Indiana, if the Hoosier divers could corral the majority of the top spots, an increased emphasis could be placed on the meet's final relay. Marc Carlton of Indiana has dominated the qualifying in each of the three diving events. His 184.15 points were the most banked into the finals, and they provided more than enough of a cushion for Carlton to wrap up his second championship of the meet and the Diver of the Championships award, and his 643 points broke the Big Ten's 11-dive record. Following Carlton was his Hoosier teammate Brian Mariano in second. Purdue's Steven LoBue broke up a Crimson and Cream quartet by finishing third. Indiana's Ryan Fagan and Jesse Rappaport scored in fifth and sixth positions, followed by Minnesota's Shuan Kennedy, Northwestern's Mike Oxman, and Gopher John Schmidt. The 82 points earned by the Hoosier divers put Indiana into first place by five points heading into the championships meet's final event.
With the performance of the Indiana's divers, the onus was weighing heavy on both the Gopher and Hoosier 400-yard freestyle relay teams, as the order of finish would decide the 2005 Big Ten Big Ten Men's Swimming and Diving Champion. The Gophers entered the final relay with the conference's best time of the year and Indiana was in the sixth spot, but the Hoosier relay team swam their best time in the event this season. However, it was not enough to stave off the Minnesota Golden Gophers. Igor Cerensek, the Gophers' anchor, was in a dead heat with Northwestern's David Kormushoff through the last length of the pool. With Indiana's Todd Patrick in third position, every Hoosier fan in the building began rooting for the Wildcats. If Kormushoff had out-touched Cerensek, Indiana would have retained its lead by three points. However, Cerensek's hand reached the wall just 54-hundredths of a second before Kormushoff's to earn Minnesota's fourth Big Ten Championship in five years. Michigan's relay team finished fourth, followed by Wisconsin, Purdue, Michigan State, and Ohio State.
Throughout the 400 free relay the crowd was on its feet, the majority cheering for the host Gophers, but pockets of Hoosier faithful could be heard throughout the building as well. All 3,466 fans that attended the three-day event got more than their money's worth as the meet was a success from start to finish. Cerensek credited the fans with giving him enough to out-touch Kormushoff, "It wasn't exactly pressure that I was feeling. It was more like excitement and anticipation. I credit my low split to my teammates and our fans. They were 95 percent of the push and I just needed to get into the wall first." Whether Maroon and Gold or Cream and Crimson, the meet provided exhilarating action at each flip-turn. The meet was the closest since 1948, and only in Northwestern's two-point victory over the University of Chicago in 1920, had a Big Ten Championship been decided by fewer points. Minnesota coach Dennis Dale, soaking wet from his team's trip into the diving well, noted, "This was the closest Big Ten meet in my 20 years in the Big Ten. With three points separating the top two teams you couldn't ask for more excitement than that. It came down to the very last event and even the very last length of the very last relay."