FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. – The Northern Arizona swimming & diving team has finished runner-up at the Western Athletic Conference Championships four of the last six years. With a decorated senior class hungry to cap off their careers with a title and a talented group of youngsters to pair, the Lumberjacks are poised to capture that elusive WAC title this week at the conference championship. The wide open four-day chase begins on Wednesday and runs through Saturday at the Palo Alto College Aquatic Center in San Antonio, Texas.
"It's going to be a wide open meet and any one of three or four teams will be in the mix and that makes for an exciting meet," said head coach Andy Johns. "If you look at top-16 times right now, I think we're in a good spot, but none of that matters. All that matters is showing up, swimming fast and being in the top-16 to score points. It's going to be a battle and our girls are ready."
In the pool, the Lumberjacks may be the deepest team in the conference with a host of names either in the top-16 heading into the meet or right on the outside in just about every event. NAU should have a grand opportunity to flex its muscles in the distance freestyle events as well as the breaststrokes behind a dominant group of swimmers.
Senior Emma Lowther, junior Caitlin Wright and sophomore Kendall Brown will form a dynamic trio in the 500 and 1,650 freestyles. In the 500, Lowther, Wright and Brown will enter with the three best times in the WAC while all three reside in the top-five in the 1,650 with Brown currently owning the fastest time in the mile. Brown is the defending conference champion in the mile and all three Lumberjacks placed in the top-five in both distance events a year ago.
Led by senior Stirling Smith, the Lumberjacks have the strongest breaststroke unit in the conference. Smith will enter the meet with the sixth-best time in the 100 and the fifth-best time in the 200. Coupled with senior Jordan Burnes, who owns both breaststroke school records and finished second in the 200 and third in the 100 at last year's WAC Championships, and three underclassmen – freshmen Urte Kazakeviciute and Caitlin Baker and sophomore Monica Pruett – the Lumberjacks have five swimmers in the top-20 in the WAC in both breaststroke events.
The Lumberjack sprint crew is highlighted by junior Alexis Juergens, who owns the fifth-fastest 50 freestyle time in the conference, and will aim to make some unexpected noise for NAU. Juergens will also contribute in the butterfly events where the Lumberjacks are also well equipped. Juergens' season-best time in the 100 fly is fourth in the WAC, while senior Rachel Palmer was the 2012 gold medalist at the conference meet in the 200 fly. Palmer, the school record holder in the 200 fly, should be considered a favorite in both events, but freshman Kathryn Palomino actually owns the team's fastest 200 fly time this season.
The real X-factor for the Lumberjacks may be in the backstroke events as the team's underclassmen will be counted on heavily. Palmer is currently sixth-fastest in the WAC in the 200 back, but freshmen Jori Lindquist and Sara Lenhoff have been two of NAU's top backstrokers all season. Sophomores Trinity Frazee, Lindsay Clark-Warren and Alex Huff will also be in the mix. Without a clear-cut favorite, depth will be critical to score crucial points in the backstroke.
The Lumberjacks should once again be tough to compete with in the individual medleys as Palmer has consistently been one of the WAC's top IMers during her career. The 2012 400 IM gold medalist, Palmer is second in the 400 IM and third in the 200 IM heading into the meet. In the 400 IM specifically, the Lumberjacks head to San Antonio with six of the top-18 times in the conference with a group including Brown, who finished third in the event at last year's conference meet with a school record time, as well as Burnes and Pruett, who both have chances to possibly score in the top-16 in both events.
Overall though, the team is stacked throughout the lineup with a plethora of swimmers who will be able to contribute in all disciplines.
"We've got very strong events where we think we may be able to put four or five swimmers in the top-16 and we've got some events where we will not," Johns said. "I think that's the case for everyone in the conference, so we have to play to our strengths and swim our best when our best is required. Our depth and balance with diving will be the difference maker."
Speaking of diving, the Lumberjacks may have the deepest contingent at the conference meet but will have to work through a big void. Senior Gwen Smithberg will be unavailable for the championships after suffering an injury at the Air Force Invitational a month ago. Smithberg, last year's WAC platform champion and school record-holder on the tower, leads all divers on platform again this season and was third on 3-meter and fifth on 1-meter at the end of the dual meet season.
"Gwen is irreplaceable in many ways," said diving coach Nikki Huffman. "She is a great leader and has great work ethic and she was a great competitor. It's disappointing for her, but thankfully she'll be out there and that will help the team. Her presence will be missed and she has handled the situation like the champion she is even though I know she is extremely disappointed as we are."
Even without Smithberg, the Lumberjacks, led by sophomore Chelsea Jackson and freshman Alexa Geiger, have what it takes to compete with the best. Jackson enters the WAC Championships with top-three scores on all three boards highlighted by a 1-meter score that has held the top spot in the conference since the season's opening meet. Jackson earned two All-WAC honors last season after finishing third on 1-meter, fifth on platform and ninth on 3-meter. Geiger is also top-five on every board and is coming off a season-best performance in NAU's final dual meet.
Backing Jackson and Geiger will be sophomore Carlye Townsend and senior Jane Wakefield, both of whom have had strong seasons. Townsend has three top-11 scores and scored for the Lumberjacks on both platform (11th-place) and 3-meter (16th-place) last season. Wakefield will be a valuable contributor this weekend with the opportunity to score for the team and more importantly, fill Smithberg's senior role as the veteran leader.
"We have a strong group going in," Huffman said. "I expect Chelsea will contend for the top spots on all three boards once again. Lexi has handled the pressure really well and stepped up in her first year. Carlye had two top-16 finishes last year and if she gets on fire it could be better than that this year. Jane has never scored for us but she has always been close and hopefully this year she'll break through and go out with a great senior year because she has been diving a lot better this year."
Equipped with a complete squad both swimming and diving, 2014 could finally be the year the 'Jacks win the WAC.
"The focus is on taking care of the process and doing our part," Johns said. "If we perform up to our capabilities, good results will happen. The outcome will be what we've been working for."
The WAC will be streaming the finals of all nights on www.WACSports.tv. Each night can be viewed for $6.95 per night or a full championship package can be purchased for $10.95. Live results and a full schedule of events will be available on www.wacsports.com.