HOUSTON, Texas. – It was only the first of four days, but the Northern Arizona swimming & diving team is off to a strong start in Houston at the Western Athletic Conference Championships. Behind a thrilling 800 freestyle relay win and sophomore Tanya Kurach's first career WAC gold medal, the Lumberjacks are once again the pacesetters and will take a 20 point lead into day two over Idaho.
The Lumberjacks compiled 120 points on day one with the Vandals currently in second with 100 points. New Mexico State (83 points) and Grand Canyon (80 points) are third and fourth respectively.
Wednesday marked a near identical start to last year's blazing opening night. Last year, the Lumberjacks won the 200 medley relay and the 1-meter springboard (the first diving event of the meet) and placed second in the 800 freestyle relay.
"We're really happy with tonight's results," said head coach Andy Johns. "It's similar to last year in a lot of wins with a relay win, a win on the diving boards and a second place. It's a great start to the meet and we're excited. The girls are swimming great and diving well and we have to come back tomorrow morning and have a great session to keep it rolling."
After a silver medal performance in the 200 medley relay to start the evening session, junior Alina Staffeldt put the 'Jacks on her back to complete a come-from-behind win in the 800 free relay. Entering the final 200 yards in third by almost two seconds, Staffeldt closed the gap before chasing down Grand Canyon's swimmer on the final 50 yards to clinch NAU's first 800 free relay gold medal since 2012.
Junior Claire Hammond led the relay off before turning it over to junior Kimmy Richter, who put the Lumberjacks in first halfway through the race. Freshman Kate Bier, in her first conference championship race, followed but was overtaken by Grand Canyon and North Dakota going into the last leg. There, Staffeldt turned in the fastest split of the entire race (1.48.22) in the anchor position and overcame a nearly one-and-half second deficit in the final 50 yards to complete a winning relay time of 7:20.31. Of note, in Staffeldt and Richter, NAU had two of the top five fastest 200 splits in the relay.
Feeding off the momentum, Kurach put a stamp on the meet's opening finals session with a winning score of 304.50. Kurach, who was fifth following Wednesday morning's preliminary round, held the lead through the third of six rounds before temporarily slipping to second. She regained the lead in the fifth round and posted a big score on her final dive to seal the deal – upping her prelims score by more than 30 points.
Sophomore Raquel Gonzales joined Kurach in the 3-meter finals and finished seventh with a finals score of 258.45 as NAU was one of three schools to place multiple divers in the top eight. In fact, all five divers scored points for the 'Jacks on the opening day of competition.
Senior Alexa Geiger rebounded from her preliminary showing of 14th to win the consolation final and place ninth overall with a score of 264.25. Sophomore Christina Torrente (250.55) and sophomore Olivia Payne (230.05) also scored points for the 'Jacks prior to the evening session, providing NAU with an early advantage.
"We did a good job in consoles and finals, but I didn't think it was our best day in prelims," said diving coach Nikki Huffman. "But the fact that we are still in scoring positions just goes to show the strength of these five ladies that even when they're not having their best days and when it's not perfect they can push through. Tanya found her stride in the finals and that was really nice to see."
The quartet of senior Sara Lenhoff, senior Urte Kazakeviciute, Staffeldt and junior Roni Houck opened the night with a runner-up finish in the 200 medley relay. The defending champions in the event, despite lowering their time from a year ago ever so slightly to 1:41.44, placed second behind North Dakota.
Day two on Thursday will pick up with swimming preliminaries for the 500 freestyle, 200 individual medley and 50 freestyle at 9:30 a.m. The 1-meter diving prelims will then start at 11:30 a.m. and the evening session – also including the 200 freestyle relay will begin at 5 p.m. All times listed are local to Flagstaff.