FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. – Prior to 2017 senior class' arrival three years ago, the Northern Arizona swimming & diving team had never won a Western Athletic Conference Championship. In fact, it had been 15 years since the program had captured any conference titles.
Since then, the Lumberjacks have won three consecutive WAC championships coinciding with Alexa Geiger, Urte Kazakeviciute and Sara Lenhoff's first three seasons. Coincidence? Possibly. But it is no secret that they have been pivotal to the program's championship success since their first years on campus.
"If I think back to when they were freshmen, they were contributing then," said head coach Andy Johns. "The big thing is that while they looked up to the upperclassmen ahead of them, they weren't afraid to push and challenge them. They've been great team players throughout their careers. These seniors aspired to follow in their upperclassmen's footsteps from the start, and now they lead by example."
This Saturday, the Lumberjacks will celebrate and honor the careers of their three accomplished seniors in their final home meet of the season versus Northern Colorado at 11 a.m. Geiger, Kazakeviciute and Lenhoff will be recognized during the meet, which will be free for all fans to attend, in the Aquatic and Tennis Complex.
Saturday will mark the latest, but definitely not final, chapter of this season's senior class' career – a career that was only blossoming from the start despite high amounts of initial success. Geiger, Kazakeviciute and Lenhoff combined for seven top eight individual finishes at the WAC Championships as freshmen with Kazakeviciute (second in the 200 breaststroke) and Lenhoff (third in the 100 backstroke) reaching the podium.
Since then, they have only reached higher heights and will take a combined 28 all-conference honors with them to Houston, Texas next month for their final WAC Championships meet.
Geiger will be the diver the entire conference will be gunning for next month as she will enter her last conference meet as the reigning WAC Diver of the Year. Last season's championships was a shining one for the diver from Fullerton, Calif. as she claimed the gold on both the 1-meter and 3-meter springboard. By doing so, she became the first NAU diver to win multiple diving events at the conference championships in over a decade.
She then went on to narrowly miss a berth to the NCAA Championships by placing 12th at the Zone E Diving Championships last year. With four total WAC medals in her career, eight top eight finishes and top five springboard scores in school history, Geiger has had to seize the role as this year's leader of the diving unit which features four sophomores alongside herself.
"Lex has been a contributor from day one and she's trusted the process," said diving coach Nikki Huffman. "That helped her immensely and she's improved every year. This year being a senior, she's been a great leader for our team and she just keeps rededicating herself."
Similar to Geiger with the divers, Kazakeviciute and Lenhoff have been leaders to NAU's young group of swimmers, which includes seven newcomers. The team's youngsters were smart to follow these two starting with Kazakeviciute, who ranks second in school history in both the 100 and 200 breaststrokes. Over her career, Kazakeviciute has notched five NCAA B standard times at the conference meet and has 11 total All-WAC honors.
She has been the team's breaststroker on the medley relay each of the last two seasons and will hold down that spot for the third time next month. Last season, she earned her first career WAC gold as part of NAU's 200 medley relay winning team and also reached the podium for the third time in as many years in the 200 breast. The Kaunas, Lithuania product has been a long way from home, but her contributions to the team goes even further as the Lumberjacks' top breaststroker for three years running.
While Kazakeviciute has been at the top of her unit for three years, Lenhoff has been NAU's top backstroke finisher since her freshman year. Lenhoff has swam the backstroke on the Lumberjacks' WAC medley relay teams every season and like Kazakeviciute, got the gold last year in the 200 medley relay. The relay gold was her first career, following several near misses in her individual events.
After her third place finish in the 100 back as a freshman, she garnered silver in the 200 and bronze in the 100 a year later, and in all the Santee, Calif. native has five top four individual finishes and nine all-conference awards. While she has the second fastest times in program history in both backstrokes, she has also surprised many by scoring points with a 15th place finish in the 100 butterfly during NAU's second WAC title as a freshman.
Despite being small in size, this senior class is big on winning. Pulling off a perfect 4-for-4 at the WAC Championships is not guaranteed, but their winning pedigrees will certainly prove useful come next month's trip to Houston.
Regardless of how the remainder of their careers plays out, Geiger, Kazakeviciute and Lenhoff will leave NAU with rings, records, medals. Even more important though, they will all move on with degrees and four years worth of sisters for life. All told, that sums up what NAU swimming & diving is about.
"It's hard to say for sure of their legacy because we aren't finished yet, and their contributions aren't complete yet," Johns said. "But they are super important parts of all three of our conference wins and they will be integral to a fourth. They're leaders and they'll leave big holes to fill once again despite only having three seniors. Academically, they lead the way in showing how important we take that and overall, they're just great people."
Alexa Geiger – Special and Elementary Education Major:
- "I'm so glad I made this decision. I still think about it today, I can't imagine being anywhere else when I go to other meets and I'm around so many other teams and divers. I can't imagine being with anyone other than Nikki, this school and in Flagstaff. I couldn't be any happier finishing my four years here at NAU."
- "I've taken on a big role this year because I'm the only senior (diver). My goal has been to show them the footsteps I've followed with Gwen (Smithberg) and Chelsea (Jackson). Gwen would always carry herself so well and was always such a great presence on the pool deck when I was a freshman, so I've wanted to be the best leader for them so they could fill in those shoes as well."
- One of the most important things I've learned was to cherish every moment. I've wanted to take it all in because it's all gone so fast. Being a freshman and winning a championship, it was amazing to walk into that. To continue that every year was amazing and having that moment when you hold the trophy just makes you want it more every year."
Urte Kazakeviciute – Fitness and Wellness Major, Biology Minor:
- "It was hard to leave home for the first time, and I didn't know what to expect. It was hard for me because I'm so close with my family, so it was hard not knowing what was going to happen. When I got here, Andy picked me up from the airport and the girls really welcomed me. The first year was very difficult because I wasn't used to the amount of work we did here; I used to train less at home. I missed home a lot, but after my freshman year I fell in love with this school and the team and it's flown by ever since."
- "Our senior class when we were freshmen – Jordan (Burnes) and Stirling (Smith) for the breaststrokers – were really tough girls. I looked up to them a lot because they seemed like another level of athletes. They were good leaders and they were very strong. I had an idea of that's what seniors should be like and I really hope that I'm the same type of senior like they were to me."
- "I recently told my dad that choosing NAU was my best decision in life so far. I have no regrets and it has treated me well. Coming in, I didn't know what conference meant and I didn't understand how big of a deal it was to win one. When we won the first one and I saw how happy everyone else was, I learned what it meant and while I don't want to say anything, I hope we'll win a fourth one this year. That would be awesome."
Sara Lenhoff – Biomedical Sciences Major:
- "It's amazing to think that I wouldn't know any of these people if I hadn't committed to NAU. I would have to say the most amazing part of my decision is all the wonderful people I've been able to make connections with. Three championships are pretty cool too though. The girls were close then, and we're even closer now than we've ever been. I'm so glad that I made this decision."
- "Our freshman year, we had so many amazing seniors; just to name a few we had Jordan (Burnes), Andrea (Derflinger), Emma (Lowther), Rachel (Palmer), Becky (Russell). They were all just great role models and they cared about us as people, and that was refreshing to not just be seen as teammates. There's been so many great seniors through the years who have helped us along the way and hopefully we've been able to help our underclassmen in the same way."
- "When it comes to difficult times, the team always rallies. This year has been a difficult year, the last three years have seen its ups and downs, and no matter what we always find a way to come out on top. I'm excited for this upcoming championship, not to say we're going to win, but it's going to be a good one."