FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. – Seven points. That was the slim margin between San Jose State, the 2013 Western Athletic Conference champions, and Northern Arizona, the WAC runner-ups. Seven points was all that stood in the way of the Lumberjack swimming & diving team from claiming its first-ever WAC title and first conference championship since the 1997-98 season when it won the Pacific Collegiate Swimming Conference.
But the chase continues after four second-place finishes in the last six years and with a deep roster loaded with 24 returning letterwinners and led by a decorated group of seniors, the Lumberjacks are primed to win the WAC in 2013-14.
With NAU's first regular season dual meet approaching at home versus New Mexico on Oct. 26, a series of event breakdowns will be released on nauathletics.com beginning today with the freestyle and backstroke.
Oct. 17 - Freestyle/Backstroke
Oct. 18 - Breaststroke/Butterfly
Oct. 21 - Individual Medley/Diving
Head coach Andy Johns not only boasts strong senior class this year, but he also has a talented group of underclassmen to fill out his roster. That group of underclassmen starts with sophomore Ellie Morrissey, who was named the WAC's Freshman of the Year as well as NAU Female Newcomer of the Year after a fabulous freshman season. Morrissey broke the school records in the 100 free and 200 IM and was also a part of three school record relay teams in her first year and totaled five All-WAC honors at the conference meet.
The sophomore from Huntington Beach, Calif. gives the Lumberjacks a strong edge in any meet in the 50 and 100 free. Fellow sophomores Alexis Juergens and Halle Wilson provide depth in the 50 free. Moving into the 100 and 200 freestyles, senior Emma Lowther and junior Caitlin Wright provides the Lumberjacks with a presence that few teams can counter.
Lowther, the school's record holder in the 200 free, has back-to-back third-place finishes in the 200 free at the WAC Championships and is a two-time CollegeSwimming.com Mid-Major All-American. Wright, NAU's Female Newcomer of the Year in 2011-12, finished seventh in the 200 free at the conference meet, one of three top-seven finishes for her in freestyle events.
Sophomore Kendall Brown comes into play in the long distance freestyle events after she had quite the debut season herself. She won the gold medal in the 1,650 free at the WAC Championships with a time of 16:31.73, which is the third fastest time in NAU history. Along with Lowther and Wright, the trio each holds a spot in the all-time top-five times in both the 500 free and the mile. Brown, Lowther and Wright also all placed in the top-five in both events last season.
Sophomore Eva Pold can provide depth in the distance events while sophomore Trinity Frazee as well as freshmen Jori Lindquist and Kathryn Palomino are expected to compete for the Lumberjacks anywhere from the 50 to the 200.
"Overall we have a lot of solid depth in the freestyle from the 50 up to the mile," Johns said. "It's definitely a strong point for us as a team."
Graduated senior Fi Connell's departure leaves a big hole at the top of NAU's backstroke list as she ended her career as the record holder in both the 100 and 200 back. However, with a steady stable of returners in addition to a few talented newcomers the Lumberjacks have enough to fill the void collectively.
"We're missing Fi but I think we're deeper overall," Johns said. "For dual meets we're looking for that person that will be solid for us in both the 100 and 200 backstrokes and it's a different story when it comes to the conference meet. Right now everyone is battling it out and it's a different person that tends to be the fastest backstroker every day."
The Lumberjacks return senior Ashani Gottlieb and sophomores Alex Huff, Brooke Brittain and Frazee among their top returning backstrokers. Two years ago, Gottlieb won the B final at the WAC Championships and finished ninth overall in the 200 back with of a time of 2:02.17 that ranks fifth in school history. She followed that up with a 14th-place finish in the 200 back last year and is the team's most experienced swimmer in the backstroke events.
Huff, Brittain and Frazee all earned top-20 finishes in the two backstroke events at the conference championships last season. Huff was the top finisher among the bunch as she posted a career-best time of 55.61 to finish 17th in the 100 back. That time is the second-best 100 backstroke time in school history. Brittain meanwhile finished 19th in the 200 back and Frazee posted NAU's fifth fastest 100 back time in finishing 20th.