Photo Courtesy of Don Elmore
SAN ANTONIO, Texas – Riding a pair of top-three sweeps in the 1650 freestyle and 200 breaststroke as well as all four divers scoring points among a host of other highlights, the Northern Arizona swimming & diving team captured their first ever Western Athletic Conference championship in program history on Saturday running away with the title. Postmeet, Head Coach Andy Johns was named the WAC's Coach of the Year for the second time in his NAU tenure.
The Lumberjacks entered the day just 19 points ahead of Idaho atop the team scoreboard, but used a strong morning preliminary session to set up a masterful night session to pull away with a 743-642 victory over the Vandals at the end. The elusive championship ends a stretch of four runner-up finishes in the last six years.
"It was all about this morning's session and we did what we thought we could do in the morning," Johns said. "The mile was a great way to start the night and we weathered the storm through the 100 freestyle. All of our 200 events were good and the divers were solid once again. We relied on our depth all year long to win some dual meets and they all shined today. There's so many people that contributed to our team success and I'm so proud of all of them."
The Lumberjacks set the table for a strong night session with an impressive morning preliminary round. NAU punched a ticket for a total of 17 entries into the night's scoring heats with 11 of them in the championship 'A' finals. The total was upped to 20 total and 14 'A' final entries with NAU's three seeded distance freestylers – sophomore Kendall Brown, junior Caitlin Wright and senior Emma Lowther – in the 1650 freestyle final heat.
The night began with a bang for the Lumberjacks as Brown, Lowther and Wright swept the top-three spots in the mile. Brown defended her WAC title in the event with a dominating time of 16:33.27 for the team's first individual title of the meet. Lowther earned her third medal – and fourth top-five finish of the meet – winning silver with a time of 16:40.64 while Wright completed the NAU sweep with a time of 16:42.87.
In addition to sweeping the top-three spots in the mile, NAU did the same in the 200 breaststroke doing its biggest damage in the event. Freshman Urte Kazakeviciute, senior Jordan Burnes, freshman Caitlin Baker and senior Stirling Smith occupied four of the top-eight spots and Burnes capped off her outstanding career with her first individual gold medal. She broke her own school record with a time of 2:13.35 and notched her second NCAA 'B' cut time of the meet. Kazakeviciute also posted a B time finishing with the silver medal and a time of 2:14.99, second all-time in the event to Burnes. Smith wrapped up the sweep with her first career medal and a time of 2:16.39 to move into fourth all-time in school history. Baker made it four Lumberjacks in the top-five finishing fifth and sophomore Monica Pruett added to the Lumberjacks' breaststroke takeover by finishing 10th overall.
The breaststroke was not the only event that the Lumberjacks made noise in as they placed a total of four swimmers – three in the 'A' final – in the 200 butterfly scoring heats. Senior Rachel Palmer finished fourth overall with a time of 2:02.16 and was followed closely by classmate Andrea Derflinger, who claimed fifth, and junior Alexis Juergens, who finished seventh. Sophomore Eva Pold finished 14th overall.
"I'm really happy to finish the way I did and go out with a bang," Burnes said. "I told myself to leave it all in the pool and do it not only for myself, but for the team. I think our team did an awesome job and I don't think you'll see any other team that wanted it more than we did."
After top-five finishes in the 100 backstroke Friday night, freshman Sara Lenhoff and sophomore Alex Huff made it back to the 'A' finals of the 200 back where they once again shined. Lenhoff, already the owner of the second-fastest 100 backstroke time after Friday, posted a finals time of 1:59.26 in the prelims to move into second all-time in the 200 back and finish fourth overall. Huff finished seventh overall. Freshman Jori Lindquist snagged the final qualifying spot in the top-16 and the 'B' final and moved up five spots in the final to finish 11th.
Freshman Kathryn Palomino was the lone Lumberjack to qualify for either of the scoring heats in the 100 freestyle, and placed 14th, while the 400 free relay team finished sixth.
The NAU divers as they have all week performed well once again. Competing on platform, all four Lumberjack divers placed in the top-16 to earn an opportunity to score valuable points for the team. Sophomore Chelsea Jackson took home her third bronze medal with a career-best score of 230.50, second all-time to her teammate Gwen Smithberg. Freshman Alexa Geiger concluded a stellar first WAC Championships with a seventh place finish while sophomore Carlye Townsend and senior Jane Wakefield placed 12th and 16th respectively to earn valuable points for the Lumberjacks.
"It was a great week for divers to have three in the top-eight on both springboards and two on platform," said diving coach Nikki Huffman. "The fact that all four divers scored in two of three events was even more impressive. I'm very proud of this team. They came together after going through a lot the last four weeks and I couldn't have asked for anything more."
The Lumberjacks were a complete team all week long in San Antonio. They may have only claimed two individual gold medals and just one medal in the relay events, but they had 20 athletes – 16 swimmers and four divers – score points for the team in at least one event. Of the 20, 16 of them got into the championship 'A' final in at least one event.
For the team's decorated senior class of nine, a WAC championship was the only thing missing from their resumes and now that void has been filled.
"The seniors have been awesome all four years and they elevated our program both in and out of the pool," Johns said. "This year we needed them more than ever and they're going to go on and do great things. They've definitely left their mark on our program and I'm so excited that all of their hard work paid off in a championship in their senior year."
After four grueling days of competition and years of coming up short, the 'Jacks Won WAC.