FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. – Led by four returning CollegeSwimming.com Mid-Major All-Americans, a superb freshman class, and a deep diving roster, the NAU swimming & diving team has its sights set on a conference championship this week as it competes at the Western Athletic Conference (WAC) Swimming & Diving Championships Wednesday through Saturday in San Antonio, Texas.
"We're excited to get to San Antonio and start racing," NAU head coach Andy Johns said. "We think we have a fair shot at winning. We have to perform at a high level and we may need to get a little help, but that's all a part of winning a championship – being your best and taking advantage of some opportunities."
The Lumberjacks finished second at the conference meet last season while winning five event titles, breaking eight school records, and recording 11 NCAA 'B' standard times. The team has finished second at the conference meet in three of the last five seasons, and while the membership of the WAC continues to change every year, the level of competition will again be high this season.
"This is a different type of season with Nevada, Hawaii, and Fresno State having left the WAC and there will be a greater emphasis on how well our divers perform," Johns said. "We return some event champions and we're looking forward to defending those titles but Denver and San Jose State are definitely very strong competitors and it's going to be a battle."
NAU's divers could score big points over the first two days of the meet in the 1-meter and 3-meter competitions. Senior Kristy Ardavanis won five WAC Diver of the Week awards this season and will be among the favorites to win WAC titles on both springboards while junior Gwen Smithberg and freshman Chelsea Jackson have also recorded NCAA Zone qualifying scores on both boards this season.
The Lumberjack divers recorded the seven best 1-meter scores in the WAC this season, with Ardavanis posting the top two scores in the conference while she also has posted five of the top eight 3-meter scores. Smithberg has been the conference leader on platform and broke the school record with a 222.50 scores earlier this season. With six divers competing, the Lumberjacks should be in a strong position to score points in each of the three diving events.
"As a team we're not as deep as some of the other schools out there but I think we're more balanced across the board, especially when you throw in the diving events," said Johns.
Leading the freestyle sprint events will be freshman Ellie Morrissey, who during a superb rookie season has already recorded the fifth fastest times in program history in both the 50 and 100 freestyle. Junior Emma Lowther, NAU's program record holder in the 200 freestyle, paces a deep distance group along with sophomore Caitlin Wright and freshman Kendall Brown.
Five-time WAC Champion and three-time CollegeSwimming.com Mid-Major All-American Fi Connell will look to end her Lumberjack career with two more titles in the 100 and 200 backstroke while junior Ashani Gottlieb, sophomore Alex Huff, and freshman Brooke Brittain will also battle for points in the backstroke events. NAU's 100-breaststroke record holder Jordan Burnes leads a strong contingent in that stroke and could challenge for event titles along with junior Stirling Smith.
Junior Rachel Palmer was the star of the 2011-12 WAC Championships for NAU with three individual event tiles and will again be among the favorites to win butterfly and individual medley titles. Sophomore Alexis Juergens has also had a great deal of success this season in butterfly events while many of the previously mentioned Lumberjacks will be among the conference's best competitors in both the 200 and 400 Individual Medleys.
With the depth of its roster and superb talent at the top in all of the strokes, the Lumberjacks should again challenge for titles in the team events. NAU won its first ever WAC relay title last season, touching first in the 800 freestyle, while also breaking school records in the 200 and 400 medley relays.
San Jose State and Denver each have multiple NCAA top-50 times in the pool and will pose the strongest opposition to the Lumberjack swimmers. The Spartans took home the WAC title last season after leading the competition wire-to-wire. NAU was second followed by Hawaii, which has since left the conference, and New Mexico State.
There will be four new conference members competing at the meet for the first time, including a strong Denver team in what will be the school's only year in the WAC before it moves to the Summit League. NAU competed against three fellow WAC members during the regular season, defeating New Mexico State and Northern Colorado in home duals and losing at Idaho.
The competition will be fierce, but Johns and his team are confident that they can bring home a title if they perform at their very best.
"We're going to have to be in the 90% range of lifetime bests in order to have a chance to win, but that's what we're ready to do," Johns said. "I'm looking forward to watching the girls compete at their best and it should be a good week."
The WAC Championships begin at noon Arizona time Wednesday with the preliminary round of 1-meter diving. Finals each night will begin at 5:30 p.m. Arizona time and will be streamed live online on WAC TV. For live updates throughout the week follow @nauathletics and #NAUSD on twitter and like NAU Athletics on facebook.