Head coach Sue Novitsky begins her seventh year at Illinois.
Oct. 20, 2006
CHAMPAIGN - One year after the Illini Swimming and Diving Team qualified four swimmers for the NCAA Championships, for the second time during head coach Sue Novitsky's six-year tenure, three of four participants return as seniors. In all, seven seniors will guide the 2006-2007 team of 16 newcomers and 18 returning Illini into a new season.
The good news is that Novitsky and the Illini have made similar adjustments each of the previous two seasons. In 2004, there were nine freshmen, and last season, 15 freshmen made their Orange and Blue debuts.
Preparations for the newest Illini began last season during the team's yearly exit interviews, when Novitsky emphasized what lay ahead.
"I told the seniors that right from the start you have to set the environment that you want to be in as far as what's acceptable and what's not," Novitsky said. "How you work in practice and how you get the job done - making sure that the team is a team. Keep working on the team chemistry and that cohesiveness so that everybody feels they have a role to play and can add something to the team."
Months later, Novitsky says the team is focused on sticking to the plan.
"We did a ropes course at Allerton Park, and that was probably one of the best things we could have done because they got to learn how to work with each other a little bit more," Novitsky said. "They want to learn and keep developing that trust with each other so that they know that their teammates' intentions are good and that they're going to follow through on what they want."
Calling the swimming and diving squad possibly the most balanced she's seen in her time at Illinois, the head coach believes it is possible for the Orange and Blue to progress from last season, in spite of the number of personnel losses.
"I look at our team and I look at our depth chart where people can fit in, and we're a much more balanced team throughout the events than we have been in the past couple years," Novitsky said. "We're trying to even push beyond how they've rebounded in the past."
Individually, the sprint freestyle events should be the squad's strongest area with four seniors participating in the 50 and 100 free. Included in that foursome are Barbie Viney, the school record holder in both events, and Meghan Farrell, second to Viney in the all-time 50 free ranks. Seniors Becca Poetz, Michelle Grandcolas and sophomore Iana Boneva will stake down the final three spots in the 50 free. Sophomore Katie Theissen, Poetz and Leigh Ann Tracy round out the 100 free.
Viney returns as the school record holder in the 200 freestyle and stands ninth in the all-time 500 free rankings. Junior Kellie Stevens joins Viney in both events where she will try to improve on her 10th-place standing on the 200 free record list. Viney and Stevens hold the top two spots and Forsberg and Theissen complete the 200 free lineup. Sophomore Lindsey Shirley sits eighth all-time in the 500 free and first on the preseason depth chart. She is followed by Viney, freshman Amy Forsberg and senior Caroline Moore.
Following a break-out meet at the Big Ten Championships, sophomore Lindsey Shirley is looking to build on her first year and to help newcomer Amy Forsberg adjust in her debut season. Forsberg will likely be joined by a combination of Viney, Stevens, and freshmen Kelly Smithwick, Kristen Kloeckener and Annie Nowak in the distance events.
Farrell enters the season fourth on the all-time 100 back record list, while Caroline Moore ranks ninth in the 200 backstroke. Farrell and Moore will swim both the 100 and 200 back with help from a combination of Theissen, freshman Cece Marizu, and juniors Mallory Craft and Meghan Bradley.
Continuing in the tradition of some of the program's most successful swimmers in Ilkay Dikmen, Trisha Lakatos and Kathryn Easey, sophomore Marissa Clapp returns with her name already etched in the school record book. Senior Leigh Ann Tracy has also demonstrated improvement, and Theissen, Stevens, senior Jessica Rothenberg, freshman Emily Mycyk and sophomore Ali Keehn, deepen the position.
After the graduation of UI record holder Christina Brunka, seniors Michelle Grandcolas and Jessica Rothenberg fortify the butterfly event. Viney, sophomore Ali Keehn and Mycyk and freshman Jennifer Ivarson could impact the butterfly as well.
"Some of our freshmen have good potential to earn spots on those relays and that's what we're planning on right now," Novitsky said. "Jennifer Ivarson is a butterflier, so we're looking for her to start filling Christina's shoes and keep helping us get faster."
Returning swimmers Clapp, Rothenberg, Theissen and Bradley offer a variety of strengths, while Ivarson, Smithwick and Marizu will give the IM a different dimension.
Relays have traditionally been the headliner of the swimming and diving team. Don't expect a drop-off there this season, even with the graduation of Brunka and Easey.
"We're planning on being just as strong, if not faster," Novitsky said of the relays. "I look at our depth chart, especially in the 50 free, and we have people that can step right into Christina's spot who are just as fast as her right now and hopefully will get faster this year."
The only question may be who is going to swim on which relay.
"Freestyle is probably the strongest event due to the balance and depth," Novitsky said. "There should be lots of competition in the 200 and 400 after qualifying for NCAA Championships and setting school records twice last year. They're pretty hungry to come back and swim even faster this year."
Easey and Brunka's departure means two swimmers will have to assert themselves in those positions, but Novitsky is convinced that emergence will come by the time it matters most in the latter part of the season.
"Medley relays, that's going to take a little work again," Novitsky said. "With both Kathryn and Christina being on the 200 and 400 medley relay, we have some spots to fill there. The medley relays are probably going to take a little bit longer to sort through and figure out where people are going with those, but I feel confident that we'll come through and swim fast in the end."
Diving coach Chris Waters, formerly of Tulane, begins his tenure with the Illini with a roster of divers that features both youth and experience as veterans Jackie Bain and Abbey Bernardo welcome freshmen divers Kyla Bachtell and Nikki Spillone. So far, the adjustments could not have gone better, Waters said.
"It could have been hard, but I guess my personality must have meshed just right with our divers and what they were looking for, because it's been real easy. We get along great, and it's like I've been working with them for a number of years."
Under close observation, Bernardo continues to get stronger after last season's injuries.
"She's still mending from the problems she had with two vertebrae in her lower back last year," Waters said. "If we play it smart, we've got her working with the trainers and with the coaches on a program that's designed with both preventative and strengthening components. If we keep following that path and err just a little bit on the precautionary side, I think she's going to have a great year. She has a ton of talent."
Like Novitsky, Waters believes the Orange and Blue will peak at the right time.
"The girls are going to be pleasantly surprised with how things turn out come February and March."