FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. – A season that culminates in a championship will always be remembered as a successful one. But when a team is thrown as many obstacles as the Northern Arizona swimming & diving squad dealt with on their way to the first Western Athletic Conference championship in program history, the 2013-14 season is even sweeter.
"We had contributions from everybody all year long and it started with our first dual meet and it just carried all the way through," said head coach Andy Johns, the WAC Coach of the Year. "We've been so close so many times and to have a year that wasn't easy and perfect end with a championship is fantastic. We were well-prepared for a tight conference meet because this year was tougher than most in some respects and we got clutch swims from a lot of people during different times of the year."
Having lost some key swimmers and divers from last year's conference runner-up team, the fourth second-place finish in the last four seasons, winning the WAC this year was going to require a collective effort. Knowing that, the Lumberjacks went to work starting with their season opener back in October against New Mexico. Facing an early deficit to the Lobos, the Lumberjacks powered their way to victory behind 10 individual wins, three coming from sophomore Kendall Brown.
Dual meet victories against Idaho, which was just a foreshadowing of things to come, and Northern Colorado led to a 3-0 start to the season before NAU suffered a narrow four-point loss to Colorado State. A pair of invitationals followed with the NAU swimmers competing at the UNLV Invite and the divers making the trip south to the Arizona Wildcat Diving Invite. Facing top-caliber competition from the Pac-12 and more in addition to inclement pool and weather conditions, the Lumberjacks stood to the test with five swimmers placing in the top-eight individually in Las Vegas and sophomore Chelsea Jackson leading the diving contingent with top-10 finishes on all three boards.
A dual meet win over New Mexico State gave the Lumberjacks momentum with the turn of the calendar to 2014 heading into their week-long training camp in Tucson, capped off with a double-dual versus Arizona and Oregon State. While the swimmers had time off until the team's final dual meet against Grand Canyon, the divers were struck with a big blow during their trip to Air Force for the AFA Diving Invite. On the final day of competition, senior Gwen Smithberg suffered what appeared to be a season-ending injury at the time, forcing her to miss her Senior Day as well as the conference championships.
In an emotionally charged final home meet for the team's nine seniors, the Lumberjacks pulled away late, dominating the final third of the meet to defeat in-state rival GCU. The meet was one of the fastest ever at the Wall Aquatic Center with nine pool records going down on the day with senior Emma Lowther (100 free), Brown (800 free), senior Stirling Smith (200 breast) and junior Alexis Juergens (100 fly) etching their names onto the Wall Aquatic Center record chart.
Following a 5-3 dual meet season in which 14 different Lumberjacks won at least one individual event with Lowther pacing the team with nine victories, NAU traveled to San Antonio with high hopes of erasing the program's recent close calls. The meet was expected to be tightly contested and it stayed true to expectations through the first three days. Despite not winning a single event, the Lumberjacks led or had a share of the lead at the end of each of the first three days (tied after day one and ahead by six and 19 points respectively after days two and three).
Yet Idaho remained on NAU's heels heading into the final day of competition with the trophy on the line. With the WAC Championship within grasp, the Lumberjacks brought their 'A' game in the morning session, punching a ticket for 17 entries into the night's scoring heats with 11 of them in the championship finals.
The night session got off to resounding start with the team's distance squad sweeping the top-three medal positions in the mile. Brown defended her conference title in the 1,650 freestyle and was followed by Lowther and junior Caitlin Wright in the top-three. Off to a fast start, the Lumberjacks took full advantage of their championship finals appearances and essentially clinched the title by crushing the competition in the 200 breaststroke. Senior Jordan Burnes earned her first individual gold medal of her career in the event and freshman Urte Kazakeviciute and senior Stirling Smith completed NAU's second medal sweep of the night. In all, NAU snagged four of the top-five spots and half of the top-10 in total in the event.
Not to be outdone, the Lumberjack divers were clutch on the boards as they came together in the absence of Smithberg. Jackson as well as freshman Alexa Geiger, sophomore Carlye Townsend and senior Jane Wakefield all scored in the final diving event on platform, the second time in three diving events at the WAC Championships, that they did so.
"When I look back and reflect, we had a very successful season," said diving coach Nikki Huffman. "All five divers trained hard and brought great attitude day in and day out. Going into WAC, we had to overcome a traumatic event and they stepped up and dove well. We had great leadership and depth and I am proud of all of their efforts."
The entire team's depth was on full display over the four days in San Antonio, as it was all season long, as a total of 20 athletes – 16 swimmers and four divers – scored points in at least one event. Of the 20, 16 of them got into the top-eight championship final in at least one event, overcoming just two individual gold medals and one total medal in the relays. Burnes broke both of school records in the breaststroke events with a pair of NCAA B Standard times, while Kazakeviciute and Brown notched B times in the 200 breast and 400 IM respectively.
A trio of divers wrapped up the season at the NCAA Zone E Meet as Jackson, a three-time bronze medalist at the conference meet, and Geiger, a second-team All-WAC selection on all three boards, was joined by the triumphant return of Smithberg. Jackson qualified for the finals on both 1-meter and 3-meter while Geiger concluded her spectacular first season with a Zone appearance and Smithberg was afforded the opportunity to dive amongst the best divers in the region to close out her career.
After falling short so often, the Lumberjacks, ranked No. 25 nationally in the final CollegeSwimming.com Mid-Major Rankings, finally conquered the Western Athletic Conference. It will be tough to replace a senior class that has contributed so much over the last four years in the pool, in the classroom and in the community, but after what NAU endured this year, nobody should be surprised when the Lumberjacks are right back in contention for a title repeat next year.
"It's motivating (to repeat)," Johns said. "We're losing 200 points from our seniors, but with our incoming freshmen we'll be good in different ways next year. The challenge will be to continue to work hard and persevere to be ready for another battle."