Welcome back for another installment in Talking 10’s “Minnesota Week” series. Although most of our articles for “Minnesota Week” are focusing on football, this is our weekly chance to check in on all the other athletic success stories going on in the Twin Cities.
Let’s take a look at some of the highlights of 2015-16 and how that will project forward for Gopher fans in 2016-17. Not only is there a national championship to cover, but also a number of other conference champs! Let’s dive in.
Women’s Ice Hockey
(The Gophers at the Frozen Four, courtesy twincities.com)
Coming off a national championship in 2014-15, the Minnesota Gophers women’s ice hockey team had a lofty standard to live up to this year. However, a strong senior class led a motivated team right back to the Frozen Four, where the Gophers had more than enough to defend that title, bringing the biggest piece of hardware back to Minneapolis for the second-straight season.
Before reaching those heights, this team largely dominated in WCHA play, but for games against rival Wisconsin. Unfortunately the great efforts of both those teams go unrewarded in Talking 10’s Big Ten Championship Cup tracker as a result of there not being a Big Ten Conference for this sport, but being ineligible for “The Delany” points does not mean this is an accomplishment that can be overlooked.
Wisconsin actually edged out the Gophers by a point in the regular season standings as well as in a 1-0 decision in the WCHA tournament final. But Minnesota learned from these lessons against Wisconsin and took it out on the NCAA field, including a moment of revenge against Wisconsin in the national semifinal in a 3-2 overtime victory. Boston College was no match for Minnesota in the final, and the Gophers take home the national title.
That certainly makes up for any minor disappointment in being the WCHA runner-up. Repeating national championships is ridiculously rare, but Minnesota’s hockey program has now done that three times. Indeed, this program has actually won four out of the last five NCAA championships, so it’s officially a dynasty in the Twin Cities.
Looking ahead to whether a three-peat is possible, the Gophers lose what was obviously a great senior class headlined by two of the top all-time scorers in Minnesota hockey history in Hannah Brandy and Amanda Kessel. However, another top-tier scorer returns in Dani Cameranesi, and she will lead a still-strong Gophers team. It’s hard to call for another national title, but Minnesota will not be knocked off this mountaintop easily.
Men’s Ice Hockey
(Jack Glover and Darian Romanko in the Big Ten tournament championship, photo courtesy gophersports.com)
One good hockey program deserves another, and the Gopher men’s hockey is just as talented as the women. Although Minnesota has not been able to rack up national titles on this side of the ice as frequently as the women, the 2015-16 season was highlighted by a fifth-straight conference championship, the last three of which have been in the Big Ten after moving from the WCHA.
That streak actually matches an NCAA record set by Boston University, which also won 5 straight conference titles in the 1990s. So despite not winning a national title this season, the Gopher men still have a big achievement to brag about this school year.
Despite winning the Big Ten championship, Minnesota failed to follow that up with a conference tournament championship, falling 5-3 in the final to Michigan. That, added to struggles in a tough non-conference schedule, resulted in a 20-17 overall record which was not good enough to make the NCAA tournament. Better luck next year, although having a chance to hold the NCAA record for consecutive conference championships all to themselves is likely a huge motivating factor for next year’s team.
Speaking of next year, the prospects look bright as Eric Scherehorn won Big Ten goalie of the year in his freshman season and will be back to lead the team again. Minnesota also had three juniors make second team all-conference, of which only Hudson Fasching has decided to leave for the professional leagues. With such top talent coming back for sophomore and senior years, Minnesota should be in the mix for a better overall result and an NCAA appearance in 2016-17.
(Celebrating a big home run in the Big Ten tournament semifinal, photo courtesy gophersports.com)
Minnesota wrapped up the softball season in the NCAA Regional round for the second consecutive season, but the journey to that point was a wild ride which included a conference championship. During the regular season, the Gophers finished 19-3 in conference play, which was good enough for a second place finish.
However, Minnesota ended the season with 11 straight victories and kept that roll going in the conference tournament, sweeping through three more wins to take the Big Ten title and the automatic berth to the NCAA tournament.
This team was led by junior pitcher Sara Gronewegen, who won All-American honors for a second straight season. She won 31 of the team’s 43 victories, including 3 no hitters and 1 perfect game. Expect Gronewegen to add to her many program records and accolades next year as a senior.
Following up on the Big Ten tournament success, Minnesota was shipped out west to Seattle to play in Washington’s NCAA regional. In the double-elimination format, Minnesota took care of business against everyone except Washington, as the Huskies defeated the Gophers twice to win the Regional. This was a similar result as last year, when the Gophers made a championship game at the NCAA Regional go to extra innings.
The Gophers lose a senior class of 6 players, many of which were important contributors. However, as noted above, the best player on the team and most critical piece comes back for her senior season in Gronewegen, which is a perfect piece to build around when trying to reach the next level of repeating conference championships and advancing beyond the NCAA Regional round. Expect even better things from this conference champion in 2016-17.
Other Big Ten Champions
Quick mentions of some other high-performing teams in a great year overall for the Minnesota athletic department (well, minus the turnover at the head of the department, anyway):
- Women’s Gymnastics – Minnesota won the regular season gymnastics Big Ten championship with a 9-0 record, leading to a national ranking of 12th at the end of the year. Senior Lindsay Mable capped off her great career with another All-American honor and a fifth-place individual finish at the NCAA national championships. She will be difficult to replace next year, but the Gophers have won 3 of the last 4 Big Ten titles and will look to keep it rolling in 2016-17.
- Baseball – The Gopher baseball team won the regular-season conference championship and earned the top seed for the Big Ten tournament in Omaha. However, a topsy-turvy Big Ten tournament favored the low seeds, which was bad news for a top seed like Minnesota. Two quick losses to Iowa and Michigan later, and Minnesota was done. However, the regular season achievements were good enough to make the NCAA Regional as a second seed in the Texas A&M Regional. One additional note is the death of pitching coach Todd Oakes in late May, as it will be interesting to see how the Gophers bounce back from this moving forward.
- Women’s Track and Field – In a dramatic finish of the 4×400 relay team, Minnesota held on to win the Big Ten outdoor track and field championships in a tie with Michigan. Event titles in heptathlon by Jess Lehman and in javelin by Nicolle Murphy led the squad. The team also qualified 8 athletes for the NCAA Championship, matching a program record for number of championship participants tied only back in 2008. The future remains bright for this program, both in indoor and outdoor track seasons.
Be sure to continue to support and enjoy these other achievements that the student athletes are bringing home to Minneapolis now and in the near future.
Stay tuned next week as we turn the ATC article series eastward to West Lafayette. Also, check out previous 2016 ATC articles already done (Michigan State)