FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. – After a 3-1 dual record to begin the season and a week off from competition, the Northern Arizona swimming & diving team faces their stiffest competition this week in separate invitationals. The swimmers will head to Las Vegas, Nev. for the UNLV Fall Invite that will run from Thursday through Saturday while the team's divers will make the trip south to Tucson to compete at the Arizona Diving Invite from Friday through Sunday.
The NAU swimmers have been strong in dual meet competition this season but will swim against some of the top programs in the country this weekend. The UNLV Invitational will follow the NCAA Championship meet format. The 10-team women's field for the meet includes four Pac-12 schools in California, UCLA, Arizona State and Oregon State as well as BYU, UC Santa Barbara, Colorado State and host UNLV. California is currently the No. 1 team in the country. All in all, nearly 20 combined men's and women's teams will compete in Las Vegas this weekend, something the Lumberjacks will need to get used to in preparation for the WAC Championships in February.
"This is the stiffest competition that we'll face all year long including the conference meet," said head coach Andy Johns. "It's going to be a fast meet and we're hoping to get some night time swims out of some individuals. We want to see them race and swim in the face of adversity. We haven't competed at a combined men's and women's meet in a really long time so it's going to be great rehearsal for the conference championships."
Senior Emma Lowther, the Western Athletic Conference Swimmer of the Week two weeks ago, has led NAU's swimming crew thus far this season with seven individual wins with sophomore Kendall Brown (6) and junior Alexis Juergens (5) right behind. The trio all have multiple top-10 times in the WAC. Senior Rachel Palmer and freshman Caitlin Baker each have three wins to their name while senior Stirling Smith has two. In total, 10 different Lumberjacks have won at least one swimming event in the first four dual meets.
Meanwhile the Lumberjacks' diving unit will compete against a stacked field as well at the UA hosted Arizona Diving Invite. All five divers will make the trip to compete against divers from Arizona, Boise State, BYU, New Mexico, Nevada, UCLA, UNLV, San Diego State and Wyoming. In addition to competing with the talented contingent of approximately 40 divers, NAU's weekend stay in Tucson will also be pivotal in that it is the Lumberjacks' first opportunity to compete on platform this season.
"It's a big meet and what's nice about the 40-plus number (of competitors) is that it's close to what a Zone Championship meet would look like," said diving coach Nikki Huffman. "It's important for us to compete on all three boards but it's also a chance for us to train on platform. It's tough competition and there are some high level divers. I expect us to compete well and use this also as a training opportunity."
Senior Chelsea Jackson will lead the quintet of divers that have performed well in the early goings of the season. Jackson, a two-time WAC Diver of the Week, has four individual wins and currently owns the top score in the conference on 1-meter. Senior Gwen Smithberg has also posted strong scores winning two 3-meter events and freshman Alexa Geiger has made a strong debut as well. The trio own the top-three scores in the WAC on 1-meter and Jackson and Smithberg are second and third respectively on 3-meter.
The UNLV Fall Invite will begin with preliminaries in the 500 free, 200 IM and 50 free on Thursday at 10 a.m. Flagstaff time while the Arizona Diving Invite will start with 3-meter preliminaries on Friday at 12 p.m.
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