FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. – Two weeks after helping the Northern Arizona swimming & diving team win their first WAC Championship in program history, three of the team's five divers will compete at the NCAA Zone E Diving meet this Thursday through Saturday. Senior Gwen Smithberg, sophomore Chelsea Jackson and freshman Alexa Geiger travel to the Air Force Academy's Cadet Natatorium with hopes of qualifying for next week's NCAA Championships.
"It's going to be a competitive meet," said diving coach Nikki Huffman. "On the springboards, only the top four or five will make NCAAs and on platform probably top-three. There will be a lot of different teams from the Pac-12, Mountain West, WAC, Big West and any school north and west of New Mexico, so it's a very big meet."
Divers from 24 women's teams across the western United States will be in attendance competing for one of the few exclusive spots into the NCAA Championships. To gain entry into the Zone meet, divers had to post qualifying marks throughout the season. With just a handful of NCAA Championship spots available and taking into account the total number of entries on each board (62 on 1-meter, 60 on 3-meter, 49 on platform), it may be a tall task ahead of the NAU divers but nothing they are not capable of diving head first into.
The Lumberjacks have had just one diver ever advance to the NCAA Championships with Valerie (Simmons) Carter qualifying twice during her career with a career-best 17th-place finish on 3-meter in 1986.
Jackson will lead the Lumberjacks this weekend following three bronze medals at the WAC Championships. She will be making her second Zone appearance after a strong showing as a freshman last year, highlighted by a 15th-place finish on 1-meter in her first career Zone final. Jackson has the team's top scores on both springboards this season and owns the second-best score on platform in school history.
"I learned that I can just relax at this meet," Jackson said. "There are going to be a lot of good divers and I can watch and learn from them. I want to have some fun at the end of the season with my teammates."
Like Jackson, Smithberg will be making her second appearance at the Zone meet in what will be a special weekend for her. After suffering what appeared to be a season-ending injury at the Air Force Diving Invitational on Feb. 1 which forced her to miss the WAC Championships, Smithberg will cap off her outstanding career with one final competition. Smithberg, the school record holder on platform and 19th-place finisher on platform at last year's Zone meet, will not dive off the tower this weekend but will compete on the 1-meter and 3-meter springboards.
"For me, this is about ending my career on my own terms and having fun at this meet for the last time," Smithberg said. "I want to be supportive of my dive team and have an amazing last experience."
Geiger will conclude her initial season at NAU with her first Zone appearance. She is coming off a superb showing at her first WAC Championships, reaching the championship final on each board and earning a best finish of fourth on 3-meter. Geiger will compete on all three boards this weekend.
"I'm excited for my first zone meet to get out there and enjoy the experience with all of the other amazing divers that will be there," Geiger said. "I'm really glad to have Gwen back and I'm excited all the hard work this year paid off. I'm ready to end the season on a good note."
It is the seventh consecutive year that the Lumberjacks have qualified at least three divers for the Zone meet. Competition begins Thursday with 1-meter preliminaries at 10 a.m. Flagstaff time and finals to follow in the afternoon. The divers will then compete on 3-meter on Friday and platform on Saturday.
"All three ladies have put in great work ethic all year long," Huffman said. "We're very excited to have Gwen back. Chelsea had a great conference meet and Lexi has improved every month as a freshman. We're excited for great competition and to have some fun and put it all together."
Live scoring will be available at divemeets.com.