SAN ANTONIO, Texas – The Northern Arizona swimming and diving team recorded a third-place finish at the Western Athletic Conference (WAC) Championships last weekend. The team improved upon its finish from a fifth-place result a season ago with multiple top individual and relay finishes.
The Lumberjacks collected 21 All-WAC Awards throughout the four-day championship meet held in San Antonio, Texas at the Palo Alto Natatorium.
"All of the girls really swam well and dove well," said head coach Andy Johns. "We were somewhere in the 85 to 90 percent of the team earning lifetime bests overall. We put a huge emphasis on swimming well in the morning and pushing people through to the finals. They understood what was at stake, got themselves ready and did the job."
The Lumberjacks produced 41 top 16 place finishes in their individual events along with five relays that scored points. Sophomore Fi Connell repeated as the 200 backstroke champion earning her third individual gold medal. She also earned a silver medal in the 100 backstroke.
Freshman Emma Lowther won a silver medal in the 1,650 freestyle in her first WAC Championship meet.
Connell won bronze in the 200 individual medley as did sophomore Jaclyn Branning in the 200 breaststroke. Senior Lana Christensen won bronze as well in 3-meter diving in the final WAC meet of her brilliant career.
"We are moving in the right direction with our young swimmers, but in our conference you have to get better," Johns said. "That is the nature of our sport these days. Our seniors all did best times. That is something pretty rare in our sport. They were able to finish their careers on an upside.
"Some of our underclassmen pushed our upperclassmen this season in a good way. All our seniors responded by stepping up and being great leaders. They all worked really hard in the weight room, pool, and classroom. Chemistry amongst teammates is an interesting thing. We work at it and talk about it. They definitely understand we are better with that. They bought into it a lot."
The six school records and 21 All-WAC awards can be attributed to the hard work put in throughout the season. Lowther broke the 12-year old school record in the 200 butterfly set by Andrea Redman in a time of 2:01.99.
Connell reset her backstroke records she turned in during the championship meet last season improving her time to 54.09 in the 100 backstroke leading off the 400 medley relay and 1:57.05 in the 200 backstroke in the finals. Senior Vivian Landeck bested Danielle Filipp's 200 freestyle record in a time of 1:50.17 while the Lumberjacks also reset marks in the 400 medley relay and 800 freestyle relay.
"It's nice to be walking away from the meet with six school records and a top-three finish," Johns said. "Throughout the year we try to focus on the process and each individual has to focus on themselves. We don't worry about what others are doing or saying. We take care of our own business and the results will take care of themselves."
Connell and Lowther were the story for the Lumberjacks combining for four medals, three school records, three NCAA "B" qualifying times, and seven All-WAC Awards.
"For Fi to be faster in both backstrokes and individual medley is tremendous," Johns added. "It has been an up and down year for her. To have lifetime bests at this meet is a great result for her. She had back issues all year and some bouts with illness. It wasn't as smooth and easy like last year. She battled through and did well.
Lowther had a similar freshman season to Connell jumping right into the mix as one of the Lumberjacks premier swimmers. She finished her first collegiate season with a brilliant championship meet from top to bottom.
"Emma had a pretty smooth year this season," Johns added. "We put her in some very challenging spots throughout the year. That didn't change at the end of the year where we asked her to swim 200 butterfly and the mile in the same day. For her to set the record in the morning in the butterfly it was incredible. It was nice to see a record from the 1990s come down off the board."
Landeck and Branning were also spotlighted by the NAU coaching staff.
"Vivian had the meet of her life," said Johns. "She was a senior on a mission. It is great for her to come away with a school record. She was on it all year. Great for her to put a mark on the program like that."
"Jackie Branning had the meet of her life," said assistant coach Jeana Fuccillo. "She blew me away. She had a rough freshman year conference meet. Andy says that sophomore year is different than your freshman year. You are living on your own. You are eating right. You know what to expect and all of that makes it easier to come in and train. She was healthy all year and mentally was not going to be denied. She was on a mission for this meet."
Next year, the WAC will have a different look as two-time champion Boise State departs for the Mountain West Conference. The loss of the nine seniors, including three top performers on the diving team that compete in the NCAA Zone Regionals next week, will be difficult to replace. But the young core of NAU swimmers and divers returning will once again look to improve upon their performances at the WAC Championships with the ultimate goal being a league title.
"They really got it done in the morning and stepped up at night," said assistant coach Jeana Fuccillo. "They did such a great job. Our underclassmen had a huge impact on the team as a whole. They came in and fit in. They all started working hard from day one. No one ever complained all year. They did great and we will be ready to keep improving next year."