FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. – The Northern Arizona swimming & diving team will host in-state and WAC rival Grand Canyon on Saturday at 11 a.m. in the Wall Aquatic Center. The meet is the Lumberjacks' first in their home facility since Nov. 2 and will be the team's final competition before the WAC Championship at the end of the month. Admission is free for all fans.
Although this meet will carry significant competitive importance against Grand Canyon, a team who NAU saw for the first time two weeks ago in Phoenix, the meet will also carry a lot of emotional value for the team's nine seniors on Senior Day. For the Lumberjacks' graduating seniors – Jordan Burnes, Andrea Derflinger, Ashani Gottlieb, Emma Lowther, Rachel Palmer, Becky Russell, Stirling Smith, Gwen Smithberg and Jane Wakefield – it will be their final home meets of their careers as the road, which will hopefully end in the school's first-ever WAC title, slowly winds to an end.
"All of these girls are tough and that's the thing that stands out about this class overall," said head coach Andy Johns. "They're all great students and they're doing amazing things. The standards that they have set in the pool, in the classroom, in the weight room and in the community are really high. Our program has benefitted because of all of them."
This year's senior class is as diverse as it gets as they came to Flagstaff from within the state of Arizona, from Washington to Colorado to Texas to Wisconsin, and even from overseas in New Zealand and Australia.
This class has school record holders in five individual events and four relay teams. Some are CollegeSwimming.com Mid-Major All-Americans and WAC medalists while others have scored valuable points at the conference meet and bring all the intangibles to the team. There is a Capital One Academic All-District First Team selection, WAC All-Academic selections, Golden Eagle Scholar-Athlete Award recipients and Student-Advisory Athletic Committee members. These seniors lead by example and are vocal leaders.
They may all have different backgrounds, but there is no denying the collective success they have enjoyed and the impact they have had on this program.
"They've worked really hard and we've had some ups and downs," Johns said. The biggest thing is that regardless of wins and losses, where we finish and how we finish, they have really put it all on the line. They've taught me a lot and they're great people. I'm going to miss them."
On Saturday, they will compete in the Wall Aquatic Center, where they have trained for countless hours over the last four years, one final time. Then the entire team will turn their attention to securing the WAC championship after two straight runner-up finishes.
For a class that has accomplished it all, that would truly be the perfect ending.
Below, each of the nine graduating seniors reflect on their careers at NAU, accompanied by a quote from Johns and Diving Coach Nikki Huffman.
Jordan Burnes – Berkeley Vale, NSW, Australia
Burnes: "The team atmosphere and the friends and teammates supporting you through training have meant a lot to me. That's what got me through the last four years. Being away from home has been hard, but having my teammates here as my sisters and the coaches as my parents have pushed me to be my best."
Johns: "Jordan is the school record holder in both breaststrokes and she always shows up big at the conference meet. She's a lot of fun to be around and she has a competitive spirit in her that shows up when it's most needed."
Andrea Derflinger – Anthem, Ariz.
Derflinger: "I'm going to miss the togetherness and overall team atmosphere the most. I made lasting friendships and every year I've been able to take away and learn something from every teammate. I don't think a lot of people get that opportunity. I was able to take away a lot from the coaches and this was definitely the best four years of my life. I'm grateful I was given the opportunity to be a Division-I athlete."
Johns: "Andrea has improved so much; to see where she was to where she is now is tremendous. We rely on her to swim the 200 fly, which is not an easy event, and she's been a great friend to our international athletes. She's a lifeguard at the pool, teaches lessons and she's involved in a lot of great things."
Ashani Gottlieb – Boulder, Colo.
Gottlieb: "I walked-on to the team and I've made friendships that I'll have for the rest of my life. Swimming is a lot of give and take. You'll have a lot of hard days, but it's the days that you do well and train faster than anyone expected that are the moments you live for. To have the opportunity to see what I've been able to accomplish when I look back, it's cool to be able to prove to myself that I could do things no one expected and have the support of these wonderful ladies."
Johns: "Ashani has come such a long way since she came on campus. She turned into a solid contributor especially in the 200 backstroke. We're going to miss her encouraging words; she's always cheering for her teammates in practice and at meets."
Emma Lowther – Cockle Bay, Manukau, New Zealand
Lowther: "It's hard to put into words what this has meant to me, but it's definitely been the best four years I could've ever had. I'm really grateful for especially this senior class. We've been through a lot together and I've never felt this close to a group of people outside of my family. Nikki and Andy have been my mom and dad and Laura (Thomas) slid in as the crazy aunt when she got here. It's been a great experience and I'm looking forward to the last three weeks."
Johns: "Emma has rewritten our record books in the freestyle events and for a while she held the 200 butterfly school record. She's involved on campus with her academic endeavors and she's been a great teammate and leader. She's one of the hardest working, if not the hardest working, athletes we've ever had."
Rachel Palmer – Bucklands Beach, Auckland, New Zealand
Palmer: "My favorite thing about this team is the way we all come together as a family. Especially being an international, it's always nice to know that I have 30 sisters who are ready to support you whenever you need it. I was sick last week and everyone rallied around me and that made getting better a lot easier. I'm so grateful for this team."
Johns: "Rachel is very similar to Emma in that she's in the record books and she helps out in a lot of different ways. She's a leader in the weight room and has had a tremendous career. She's tough as is everyone in this class."
Becky Russell – Arlington, Texas
Russell: "My favorite memory would have to be my sophomore year. I'd just torn my second ACL and even though I wasn't going to go to conference, when I came through the doors for practice that afternoon, the entire team was waiting for me and they gave me a huge hug. They had all gone to Andy and said that I should still go to conference and that meant the most to me. I never had a team experience like that and even though I wasn't going to score points, they still wanted me to be a part of our team; the feeling of family."
Johns: "Becky swam for our club team and then joined the university team. She's got the biggest heart and smile and that's infectious. She had two years with knee surgeries and she perseveres. We're so happy to have her to be a part of what we're doing and we're going to miss all the intangibles she brings."
Stirling Smith – Stoughon, Wis.
Smith: "The biggest thing I've learned during my four years was how to work collaboratively and that with the support and contributions of everyone on this team, we wouldn't have been able to accomplish nearly as much as we have. As a senior, it has been really fun to watch this team develop into a strong, well-rounded group of girls that has the potential to do big comes come WAC."
Johns: "Stirling has been crucial, especially this year, in the breaststrokes. Every time we've needed a big swim, it seems like Stirling has been there. She works really hard in the classroom and she brings great effort all the time. She leads by example, works with the Student-Athlete Advisory Committee and is a strong voice for a lot of people on the team."
Gwen Smithberg – Seattle, Wash.
Smithberg: "I want to stress how much this team is a family, especially recently. There's nothing in this world I wouldn't do for my teammates and this week they've proven that they'll be there for anyone that commits to this team. My favorite moment is always WAC because there's this energy that only comes with that meet. There's an enjoyment where you can show everyone closest to you how well you've prepared for nine months at WAC and to be able to share that moment is pretty special."
Huffman: "Gwen came in as one of our hardest workers ever. She's one of those people that had a gymnastics background and had a great work ethic. She's worked hard in the classroom and in the pool and she cares about what everyone is trying to accomplish on this team. She's a natural leader, her talent is huge and she's tougher than anyone I've ever coached."
Jane Wakefield – Peoria, Ariz.
Wakefield: "When people ask me what the best experience of my life is my answer is always being a part of this team for the last four years. I've learned so much and I've grown a lot. I've learned to push myself and put my faith into my coaches and myself. It's nice to be a part of a family in college; there's so much you can do to be with these 30 girls and some awesome coaches."
Huffman: "Jane is one of those people that may not always have been the top dog, but she always kept training hard. With her training, she got a lot of respect from her teammates and became a leader on the team. I think she's a great role model in so many ways. This is the one year she's really made some great improvements and I hope she goes out with a bang."