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)
Annexstad shows promise in Gophers debut
Plenty of people were curious about the Minnesota Gophers starting quarterback coming in to the season opener. After all, it’s not often that a true freshman walk-on gets the starting nod.
But, the attention and pressure of the first college game was not too much to handle for Gophers quarterback Zack Annextad. After a few shaky moments early on, Annexstad looked like he belonged on the field in the Gophers 48-10 victory over New Mexico State.
Annexstad wasn’t super accurate, completing just 48 percent of his passes. But, he more than made up for it with a blistering 220 yards and two touchdowns. Additionally, he kept the Aggies from picking him off all game long.
Perhaps the best bit of news is that it appears the Gophers may have more than one good target for Annexstad to work with. Veteran wide receiver Tyler Johnson was on point, catching five passes for 100 yards and both of the touchdown throws.
Rashod Bateman caught five passes and Chris Autman-Bell had four to his name as well.
Meanwhile, sophomore wide receiver Seth Green looked dangerous as an all-around player. He touched the ball in the backfield twice and scored on both of those touches, giving future opponents plenty to think about when it comes to game-planning for the Gophers.
Minnesota also showed off an impressive run game after a rocky start on the ground. Star running back Rodney Smith racked up 153 yards and the Gophers ran for 295 yards and three touchdowns as a team.
Add in a defense that allowed just 38 yards on the ground and only 10 points and there is a recipe for success going forward.
Of course, one has to take in to consideration the caliber of opponent, but for a team with a lot of question marks on offense, there’s little doubt this was a confidence builder.
While there will be plenty of improvement needed in order for Minnesota to be competitive come Big Ten play, this offense looks and feels different than it did a year ago.
As far as debuts go, there certainly was promise shown from Annexstad and that’s really all you can ask for from a freshman making his first start.
Don Lucia steps down from Gophers hockey program
Long-time Gophers head man steps down just a few days after his team misses out on NCAA tournament.
One of the most decorated coaches in the last two decades of college hockey is stepping down, as the University of Minnesota announced the departure of men’s hockey head coach Don Lucia.
“I want to thank Mark Dienhart for giving me a tremendous opportunity 19 years ago,” Lucia said in a statement. “I came to Minnesota because of the tradition, and I hoped to add to the tradition when I left. I am proud of the 14 banners that have been added to the rafters of 3M Arena at Mariucci.
“I am forever grateful to all the coaches, staff and most importantly the players who have worked so hard to accomplish this over the years.
“Most importantly to me, we did it the right way. Our players all graduate and have always represented themselves to the high standards of Gopher Hockey on and off the ice. It has been a tremendous honor and privilege to be the head hockey coach at the University of Minnesota.”
Lucia put up 14 banners to the rafters in Mariucci Arena, including eight regular season conference titles, four tournament titles, five Frozen Four appearances and two NCAA national championships.
Minnesota won back-to-back titles in 2003 and 2004, just four and five years in to Lucia taking over the program.
However, in recent years the Gophers have had increasing struggles as a program.
This past season was perhaps the most disappointing, as Lucia’s Gophers were just 19-17-2 overall and finished fifth in the Big Ten conference. Minnesota was left out of the NCAA tournament thanks to that mediocre record and one of the craziest scenarios in college hockey history.
Minnesota needed just one or two of six conference finals to go their way and they were likely in. The Gophers wanted to see Air Force, Boston University, Michigan Tech, Princeton, Denver and Notre Dame win their respective conference crowns.
Instead, all six of the results went exactly the other way and Minnesota was left out of the tournament thanks to the needs for other at-large bids to be handed out.
Lucia’s team went from winning six conference titles in a row to finishing fifth in the Big Ten. That could have played a part in Coyle’s decision and discussion with Lucia following the end of the season.
Signs pointed to something happening as late as yesterday, with Lucia skirting around the issue when asked by the Minneapolis Star-Tribune.
“We’ve had a lot of talks, let’s put it that way — just over the last couple years,” Lucia said.
“I don’t plan on coaching when I’m 70, I can promise you that,” the 59-year-old Lucia continued. “We’ll talk. We’ll see what’s best for where he’s at and where I’m at. We’re on the same page right now, and I think we’ll continue to be that way.”
Change had to come for a very proud program, and Lucia stepping aside rather being flat-out relieved of duties was the right thing to do for all parties involved.
Thus ends a 19-year career at the helm of the Gophers and a 31-year career as a college hockey head coach.
While the ending was a slide down the national stage, Lucia brought plenty of glory and plenty to love about Gophers hockey. His legacy is a big one and his presence is going to be hard to fill on the bench and in the Gophers hockey community.
It will be interesting to see where the search by Coyle goes, because this hire has the potential to make or break the future of this program.
Gophers, Huskers could have games altered by Oregon wildfires
Mother Nature could wreak havoc on college football this upcoming weekend, but the majority of the news has been focused on an impending hurricane barring down on Florida.
A look out West and things are just as dangerous and deadly, as wildfires are raging in California, Oregon and Washington. That could present a big problem for the Minnesota Gophers game on Saturday night with the Oregon State Beavers and Nebraska’s visit to the Oregon Ducks.
The Minneapolis Star-Tribune cites sources within the Pac-12 saying that the game time may be moved or the game moved all together.
While the fire isn’t the problem, it is the air quality in the Eugene area that is. Oregon has already had to move practice closer to the Pacific Coast and the air in Eugene appears to be a major issue.
The smoke in Eugene, where an air protection agency listed the air quality as “hazardous,” prompted Oregon to move its Tuesday practice to Florence, near the Pacific coast.
The good news is that the smoke cleared enough a day later for the Ducks to return to practice in Eugene. But, there is reason to believe the game could still be an issue as smoke is expected to return.
The smoke is supposed to return at some point. But we just don’t know when. … There are too many variables for us to look that far ahead of time.”
Yes, that means we won’t know about the status of Nebraska-Oregon until Saturday itself.
Meanwhile, things don’t look as precarious for the Gophers matchup, but that doesn’t mean change would be out of the question.
“Based upon the information provided by the air protection agency and the expert health and safety advice of the respective University medical professionals, a decision will be made on whether or not to adjust game times and/or dates with the safety of student-athletes and fans as a priority,” Andrew Walker, the Pac-12’s vice president of public affairs, wrote in an e-mail to the (Portland) Oregonian.
Once again, it appears things are going to be in a wait-and-see mode in Corvallis as well.
It hasn’t affected Minnesota all that much, as they are more worried about playing at game that would kick at 9pm in Minneapolis if it were being played at home.
Head coach P.J. Fleck has talked this week about making sure players are staying up later as the week goes on to adjust their bodies. That’s especially important as practices are taking place first thing in the morning this season.
Either way, both of these programs are dealing with a lot of uncertainty right now and that may be the biggest hurdle to get over when prepping for Week 2.
Fleck smart to let QB battle play out in actual game action
P.J. Fleck continues to row the boat at his own pace, deciding on not one, but two starting quarterbacks for the season opener against Buffalo.
What is better than one starting quarterback? Two starting quarterbacks.
At least that is the theory Minnesota head coach P.J. Fleck is going to test out for his first season at at the helm of the Gophers.
It’s a bold strategy (insert meme here), and one that hasn’t exactly worked out well for just about anyone in the past you say? Heck, even with two potential NFL draft picks it didn’t work out well for a program like Ohio State and a coach like Urban Meyer back in 2015.
The history of bad news coming with dueling starting quarterbacks heading in to the season hasn’t stopped Fleck from doing just that though.
It shouldn’t be surprising however. After all, P.J. Fleck is his own man, and many of the decisions he makes on and off the field demonstrate just that.
But, on Thursday Fleck made a pretty bold decision at quarterback — he’ll go with both Demry Croft and Conor Rhoda as starters entering the season.
— Nadine Babu (@NadineBabu) August 17, 2017
To be fair, the two quarterbacks haven’t exactly separated much in fall camp.
To the outsider that could be bad news, but according to the head coach himself, it was due to both earning the opportunity on the field.
“Every time I think I see one nudging the other out, the other one closed the gap and passed him.” Fleck said, via the Minneapolis Star Tribune. “And they’ve continued to do that. That tells me this late in training camp that both of ’em deserve to play.”
Fleck also brought up a very good point in his talk to the media — neither have a wealth of game experience to draw on and that makes separating based on practice alone a bit of a crapshoot.
“If I was to tell you that I knew exactly how those quarterbacks are going to play in a game, that’s a guess,” Fleck noted, while also pointing out just how little game experience exists.
There is a grand total of 17 passing attempts in a game between the two of them and 15 of them belong to fifth-year senior Rhoda. He went seven of 15 for 82 yards and a touchdown.
Fleck is also thinking ahead with this decision, because we all know every team in America is just one big hit away from having to go to the backup quarterback. Why not get whomever that will ultimately be some game experience while sorting things out?
It was part of Fleck’s reasoning to the media on Thursday as well.
“If we think we can go through the Big Ten and not need two quarterbacks at some point, I think we’re crazy to think that,” he said. “We’re gonna need ’em.”
With a new energy and style around the Gophers program, it seems almost fitting that Fleck would buck most of recent history — whatever he wanted to claim about two-quarterback systems working.
For every Alabama in the past few years, there is an Ohio State or Wisconsin or others to show Fleck the dangers of a prolonged QB battle.
The hope has to be that the separation that didn’t happen in spring or fall camp does happen once the games go live. Otherwise this could be one interesting first season in Minneapolis.