FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. – With their chase towards their first ever WAC Championship at the midway point, the Northern Arizona swimming & diving team enters the turn of the calendar with a 4-1 dual record and impressive showings against the some of the best competition the West has to offer in what has been a very successful start to the 2013-14 season.
"Overall I think they've grown tougher and learned the importance of every finish as we head towards the second half of our season," said head coach Andy Johns. "The team has learned how important second, third, fourth and fifth place finishes are in dual meets because we've been on both the winning and losing sides of close meets because those types of finishes. The invitationals were great because we got to compete against such a high level of athletic ability from the Pac-12 teams. It was great for our confidence."
In terms of dual meets, the Lumberjacks have flexed their muscles picking up four victories and were less than second away from a fifth. The season began with home victories over New Mexico and Idaho, before the Lumberjacks knocked off Northern Colorado and New Mexico State on the road. Sandwiched between the wins in Greeley, Colo. and Las Cruces, N.M. was a narrow defeat to Colorado State in the second meet of a back-to-back with Northern Colorado in a meet that the Rams stole with a victory in the day's last relay event.
The highlights of the first half of the season though may have come in the championship-style invites that the swimmers and divers competed in. Right before the Thanksgiving break, the NAU swimmers traveled to Las Vegas, Nev. for the UNLV Invitational where they took on competitors from a number of Pac-12 schools including No. 1 California. The Lumberjacks totaled five top-eight scoring finishes during the three-day meet and were by fourth-place finishes from senior Stirling Smith in the 100 breaststroke and junior Caitlin Wright in the 1,650 freestyle. Sophomore Kendall Brown finished seventh in the 400 IM and senior Jordan Burnes and junior Alexis Juergens each recorded eighth-place finishes in the 200 breast and 100 fly respectively.
The NAU divers on the other hand made the drive south to Tucson where they competed in the Wildcat Diving Invitational. Sophomore Chelsea Jackson placed in the top-10 on each board, including a seventh-place finish on 3-meter, while senior Gwen Smithberg captured a fourth-place finish on platform which marked the highest finish by any of the Lumberjack divers.
Fourteen different Lumberjacks have won individual events thus far in dual meets led by a team-high nine in six different freestyle events from senior Emma Lowther. Brown and Juergens have each won six events and senior Rachel Palmer has five wins to her name. On the diving boards, Jackson has won four events as the Lumberjacks have dominated their diving competition in dual meets winning all but one of the events through five meets.
"Our senior class – with Emma, Rachel and Stirling – has been solid for us," Johns said. "They swim a lot of events and they race hard as does Caitlin Wright and Alexis Juergens as juniors. Our freshmen have learned from our upperclassmen. Our upperclassmen are leading the way and that's good for the whole team."
But the team's young core have been solid as well with freshmen Caitlin Baker, Jori Lindquist, Urte Kazakeviciute and Kathryn Palomino have all won dual meet events. Fellow freshman Alexa Geiger has also won a pair of 1-meter diving events.
The Lumberjacks are back in the pool on Jan. 3 for a double dual against Arizona and Oregon State in Tucson. The meet will be televised on the Pac-12 Network. The team has one final home dual meet on Feb. 8 versus Grand Canyon, which will be just three weeks before the WAC Championships in San Antonio, Texas from Feb. 26-March 1.
With a talented and deep squad, the Lumberjacks are poised to pose as strong of a threat as anyone to bring home the WAC title.
"I think we have the depth that we have been looking for to win a conference championship," Johns said. "Now we just have to get everybody on the same page and healthy. We can really focus on some quality training as we head towards the end of February. The girls are making it hard to pick our scoring squad (for the WAC Championships) and that's a credit to them. It's a good problem to have."