HOUSTON, Texas. – It was nothing like last year. It was not a historical runaway. In fact, it was the smallest margin of victory during their title run. But the Northern Arizona swimming & diving team's fourth consecutive Western Athletic Conference championship was as sweet as ever, if not even sweeter because of the path required to reach this mountain top.
"This one is super gratifying; each (championship) has been a little different but this one is special because of the adversity we faced all year long," said head coach Andy Johns. "This one was for Hayley (Edmond). She was with us all year, especially this weekend. The whole staff is amazing; Coach Nikki (Huffman) does a great job with our divers and we couldn't have done this without them. It was a total team effort."
A season that started with tragedy ended with another WAC championship. After four fierce days of competition at the University of Houston's CRWC Natatorium, the Lumberjacks ultimately proved to be the cream of the crop again and they needed every point to do it. In the end, NAU is bringing back the hardware to Flagstaff after compiling a winning total of 615.5 points to outlast New Mexico State (551 points) and a host of competitors.
NAU's string of four straight WAC titles matches the program's longest conference championship streak. NAU previously won four consecutive Pacific Collegiate Swimming Conference titles from 1987-90. Saturday night also completed a perfect 4-for-4 career for the senior class of Alexa Geiger, Urte Kazakeviciute and Sara Lenhoff.
"The emotions right now are amazing," Kazakeviciute said. "There were definitely tears and smiles. I'm super proud of everyone and we couldn't have done this without every girl on this team. We're going to celebrate in the best way possible."
Aside from taking the team title, the Lumberjacks also cleaned up well in the awards department. Johns was named the WAC Co-Swimming Coach of the Year, receiving the award for the fourth straight season, while diving coach Nikki Huffman picked up her second straight WAC Diving Coach of the Year honor. Meanwhile, sophomore Tanya Kurach was voted the WAC Diver of the Year after winning the 3-meter competition, and placing third on platform and seventh on 1-meter.
Clinging to only a 34.5 point lead entering the final night and without the benefit of their dominating divers, the Lumberjack swimmers were faced with the task of preserving the advantage – and they came through to finish the job at hand.
Junior Kimmy Richter began the night with a gold medal performance in the mile freestyle, and by the time junior Alina Staffeldt defended her 200 butterfly title, the Lumberjacks' celebration was on. Both juniors posted their second gold medal finish of the meet and to go with their gold as part of NAU's 800 freestyle relay win on Wednesday.
Richter cruised to a win in the 1,650 free posting a season-best time of 16:49.31. The Lumberjacks also received points from freshman Erin Spielman, who recorded her first point-scoring performance of her career, in 12th with a time of 17:25.76 which was a whopping 35 seconds faster than her entry time.
Lenhoff then followed with a fifth-place finish in the 200 backstroke, recording a finals time of 2:01.36 in her final collegiate race. With Lenhoff on her way out, freshman Fernanda Montiel showed that she could be ready to take over as NAU's top backstroker moving forward by clocking an even faster night swim than her senior teammate of 2:01.05 to win the consolation final. Montiel's win was the first of two consecutive consolation wins as junior Roni Houck followed up with a winning time of 51.09 in the 100 free to place ninth.
Fresh off setting a new school record in the morning – breaking Jordan Burnes' three-year record – Kazakeviciute wrapped up her stellar career as the silver medalist in the 200 breaststroke with a time of 2:13.20. Although she was just a tick off in the finals compared to her record-breaking time of 2:13.02 in the prelims, Kazakeviciute was a lead force in the breaststroke with freshman Emily Martin and junior Audrey Mann also scoring points in 14th and 15th respectively.
Still despite placing three in scoring positions, NAU's lead stood at just 31.5 points over New Mexico State going into 200 fly – the final individual event of the meet. But Staffeldt, with help from sophomore Andrea Schmidt and freshman Kate Bier, took care of business. Staffeldt clocked a time of 1:59.30 to win her second straight 200 fly gold and was joined in the fun by Schmidt, who finished fourth with a career-best time of 2:01.38, and Bier, who placed 10th.
With the results of the 200 fly, the Lumberjacks doubled their lead to 62.5 points and the WAC Champions crown was a mere formality at that point. For good measure, Staffeldt, junior Claire Hammond, Richter and Houck capped the meet with a bronze medal finish in the 400 free relay by dropping their time by almost seven seconds to 3:24.70.
"New Mexico State did a great job, and so did Idaho," Johns said. "North Dakota won four relays and Seattle is sending someone to NCAAs. Every team brings something to this conference. We knew New Mexico State would make a run at us and it got pretty tight pretty quick. There were a few moments of not knowing for sure (the outcome), but our girls did a great job of battling and it was a fun night."
All told, NAU won seven events with Richter (500 free, 1,650 free) and Staffeldt (100 fly, 200 fly) winning two each. Kurach won the 3-meter springboard, while Geiger won the 1-meter event. Finally, the 'Jacks took first in the 800 free relay with Hammond, Richter, Bier and Staffeldt comprising the winning team. The seven gold medals ties last year's output.
Four championships in a row, and the latest for Hayley Edmond. Mission accomplished.