FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. – The Northern Arizona swimming & diving team was hit hard this season. Tragedy struck the program right from the start, and the reality of losing nearly 43 percent of their point scorers for various reasons at the WAC Championships awaited them at the end of the season. Yet, when all was said and done, the Lumberjacks stood as tall as the San Francisco Peaks that graces their town.
In Houston, Texas at the end of February, NAU withstood a cast of teams who were all gunning to take down the three-time defending champs. With the refusal to back down and give in, the team showcased the true spirt of a Lumberjack to raise the WAC championship trophy for the fourth consecutive year.
"It was a fight from the beginning, but we gained some confidence right away and there was a sense of relief at the end," said head coach Andy Johns. "The last night we knew it was going to get tight after the mile and the (200) backstroke, but we also knew we had the (200) butterfly so I don't think we ever panicked. I think we felt a little pressure – wanting to win it for Hayley (Edmond) was a lot – but there was still a calmness. Our leaders really shined because we had a lot of freshmen who needed to learn a lot, and they gained valuable experience at that meet going through those situations."
The graduation of a tremendous senior class left the Lumberjacks with a lot of spots to fill in the lineup. But this year's seniors – Alexa Geiger, Urte Kazakeviciute and Sara Lenhoff – provided guidance. NAU's junior class stalwarts – Claire Hammond, Roni Houck, Kimmy Richter and Alina Staffeldt – once again rose to the occasion in the spotlight.
The upperclassmen's determination, and performance, was critical in the extending the program's reign atop the Western Athletic Conference. Another spectacular showing by the divers, featuring four sophomores among the unit of five was not to be overlooked though – especially this season where every point truly counted.
"It was a different year for us for sure," said Johns, who was named the WAC Co-Swimming Coach of the Year. "Even though we didn't have the depth, we had enough balance, especially with our divers. Our divers were amazing and you think when you lose a Chelsea Jackson and a Carlye Townsend, they're not going to be as strong but they were great. That shows who we are as a program and we've been like that for a long time."
"They did what they had done all year," said diving coach Nikki Huffman. "We didn't have perfect performances all the time, but every time we had a couple step up extremely well. Overall, they all had great performances at the conference championships. If they didn't have a great prelim, they had a great final or vice-versa."
Sophomore Tanya Kurach, in her first season at NAU, carried the torch for the Lumberjack divers as she was named WAC Diver of the Year. She won gold on 3-meter on the opening night of competition and proceeded to earn all-conference finishes on 1-meter and platform to become the second Lumberjack in as many years to claim the conference's top Diver award.
Geiger, last year's WAC Diver of the Year, defended her 1-meter title with sophomore Christina Torrente posting her best finish at the WAC Championships with a silver medal in the same event. Along with efforts from sophomores Raquel Gonzales and Olivia Payne, the five Lumberjacks each scored in all three events totaling 156 of NAU's winning total of 615.5 points.
While the divers were taking care of business, it was up to the NAU swimmers to close the meet out on the final day and they did just that. Leading by just 34.5 points entering the final night without a diving event, Richter opened the last session with a gold medal performance in the mile freestyle – her second gold medal of the meet. Even with Richter's win though, NAU's lead grew slimmer going into the final individual event at just 31.5 points over New Mexico State.
However, the 'Jacks dominated the 200 butterfly to put the meet out of reach highlighted by Staffeldt's successful defense of her conference title. Behind Staffeldt were sophomore Andrea Schmidt and freshman Kate Bier who placed fourth and 10th respectively - which doubled NAU's lead heading into the last relay.
The meet ended in rousing fashion, just as it started for the Lumberjacks with a dramatic first-place finish in the 800 freestyle relay during the opening night. Following Hammond, Richter and Bier, Staffeldt swam the anchor leg and overcame a significant deficit in the final 50 yards to send the team into pandemonium.
Over the course of the four-day meet, there were a number of other highlights including Richter and Staffeldt each winning their first individual golds of the meet in the 500 free and 100 fly respectively. Kazakeviciute set a new school record in the 200 breaststroke and sophomore Sarah Takach provided crucial points in the 400 individual medley in her first career championship heat finals race.
The Lumberjacks may have been far off from their crushing 2016 point total of 807.5 points, but that was much of a tribute to the overall performances from New Mexico State, Idaho, Grand Canyon and North Dakota who all pushed NAU to its limits. Fortunately, the Lumberjacks' gauntlet of a schedule leading up to the WAC Championships prepared them for the challenge. NAU faced four teams (Arizona, Arizona State, Boise State, Nevada) during its dual season that finished in the top 40 at the NCAA Championships.
"We raced against some of the best teams in the country and that was important to learn how to race regardless where you're ahead or behind," Johns said. "That's what happens at the conference meet and the upper level of competition we faced really helped us."
After the joys of the conference championships, the divers had one more task at hand with Geiger, Gonzales, Kurach and Torrente qualifying for the NCAA Zone E Diving Championships right at home in the Aquatic and Tennis Complex. There, Kurach made history as she became only the second diver in school history to advance to the NCAA Championships with her seventh-place Zone finish on 1-meter.
Kurach – only the fourth NCAA qualifying swimmer or diver in program history – wound up placing 49th in Indianapolis at the national championships.
"We had a couple knocking on the door (at Zones) and thankfully we had Tanya qualified," said Huffman, who picked up her second straight WAC Diving Coach of the Year nod. "That was a great experience for her and now we're excited for next year. We graduate Lex, which will be a huge loss, but with four sophomores coming back and bringing in three freshmen, the future is nice."
Speaking of the future, despite the loss of Geiger, Kazakeviciute and Lenhoff – who completed a perfect 4-for-4 career in conference championships – NAU will return a ton of top-end talent headlined by its spectacular junior class in addition to its slew of divers. Also among the returners will be a freshman class who was counted on immensely including four conference scorers in Bier, Emily Martin, Fernanda Montiel and Erin Spielman.
"We return a tremendous senior class and we've got some girls joining us next year who are going to help us out across the board," Johns said. "They'll help fill our lack of depth and next year's sophomores would have learned a lot of over this year. We're excited where we're headed and now getting athletes to NCAAs is the goal."