The Illini will kick off their regular season, taking on Northwestern at Splash Bash 2011.
Oct. 20, 2011
CHAMPAIGN, Ill. - The Fighting Illini swimming and diving team opens its season this weekend, hosting Northwestern this Friday at 3 p.m. at the ARC Pool. Splash Bash 2011, sponsored by FOX 55/27 Illinois, will take place prior to the meet at 2:30 p.m. in room MP6 at the ARC. The fourth annual Splash Bash will feature free food for the first 500 fans as well as music, inflatables, prizes, face painting and a great view overlooking the pool. Admission is free.
"The team has been practicing really well," Illini head coach Sue Novitsky said. "This first meet is two weeks later than it normally is, so this allowed us a little more prep time and a little more time to work on the fundamentals. It also allowed us extra time to have a good progression with the amount of work we're doing. The team has been putting in a lot of work in the pool and has been getting a lot of yards and hours with great intensity."
This will be the first time the Illini and Wildcats face each other in a dual meet since the 2004-05 season. Northwestern leads the all-time series 14-7, including a 173-136 victory over the Illini the last time the teams met in 2005. This meet also marks the season opener for Northwestern, which ended the 2010-11 season with a 9-5 record and finished eighth in the Big Ten.
"This team is doing a great job in being focused in their work," Novitsky said. "One of the things we've really been working on with them is trying to be competitive. We've been putting them in some competitive situations so that they are used to that challenge. We've added Northwestern and Kansas to our schedule, which are stronger teams that will put the swimmers and divers in some challenging situations. This is a chance to see how they respond to those events."
With a large group of returning athletes and the addition of 12 talented newcomers, the Orange and Blue will look to improve on last year's 7-3 season.
"One of our big focuses is moving up in the conference, and we feel that we can do that," Novitsky said. "We're still focusing on making ourselves better. We've increased the strength of our schedule this year, so I expect us to have a lot of great challenges during the regular season. It's about stepping up each and every time, learning how to compete and continuing to compete at an even higher level."
After graduating five athletes last season, the Illini return nine seniors, including swimmers Caitlin Conroy, Rachel Japp Joyce, Kelly Kunkel, Torrey Loper, Kristen Manias, Brittany McGowan, April McKee and Michelle Mehnert and diver Britni Fisher.
"We always look for leadership from our seniors," Novitsky said. "They've been around the block a couple of times, so they've seen a lot of different things. They know the strength of this conference, and they know you have to stay on top of it. We're looking to our seniors every day in practice to try to help and keep everybody on board. We want them to push each other and push themselves."
The Illini have a solid group of talented and experienced veterans who will guide their younger teammates and teach them how to compete.
"We've been working on trying to compete more each and every day in practice," Novitsky said. "They need to push themselves out of their comfort zone a little more. They need to truly be honest with what their strengths and weaknesses are and take steps to try to address those. They need to keep trying to put those little pieces together. I think it ultimately comes down to learning how to be that great competitor."
The incoming freshmen also will look to contribute and are expected to make an impact in their debut season.
"I think we have a good, solid group of freshmen with some talent," Novitsky said. "Some of their main events are pretty high on our depth chart, so we're looking for them to step in and contribute. The biggest thing we talk about in practice is competing. It doesn't matter how old you are, I just want people to step up and swim fast. I want to identify those people who, in pressure situations, will be able to stay calm, stay focused and work to get the job done."
Senior Manias, juniors Kimberly Kalenda and Erin Lamb and sophomores Anne Goering and Courtney Pope will lead the Illini in the sprint freestyle. Last season, Lamb led the team and improved her personal best in the 50 free (23.60) to maintain her spot as the 10th-fastest Illini to swim the event, while Manias remains the sixth-fastest Illini in the 50 free (23.44) and 100 free (50.99). Seniors Conroy and Japp Joyce and talented newcomers Sabrinne Gibson and Alison Meng will also look to contribute in the sprint-free events.
The Illini will rely on Lamb and fellow seniors Kunkel and McKee to step up as leaders in the middle-distance freestyle events. Sophomores Pope, Cara Chuang and Jessica Holz will also look to make an impact throughout the season.
Seniors Loper and Mehnert and junior Kathleen Knight will lead a group of young distance freestylers. Loper currently ranks ninth in the 1650 free (16:58.04) and 10th in the 1000 free (10:14.27) on the Illini all-time fastest individuals list and had the Illini's top 2010-11 times in the 500 free (4:58.41), 1000 free (10:22.88) and 1650 free (16:57.85). Newcomer Kayla Dlugopolski, who was named to the Wisconsin All-State team for the 500 free, will also see distance action.
Backstroke and Breaststroke
Loper, Manias and junior Sarah Coady will be back to compete in the backstroke, along with sophomores Chuang and Holz. Last season, Holz and Loper became the seventh- and 10th-fastest Illini to swim the 200 back with times of 2:02.58 and 2:03.42, respectively, while Manias became the seventh-fastest Illini in the 100 back (57.10). Joining them will be newcomers Alexa Chavez, Mary Beth Howard, Callan McDermott, Katie Roeing, Gibson and Meng. Returning swimmers Japp Joyce, Coady and Erica Lynn will look to lead freshman Andrea DeAngelis in the breaststroke. Last season, Lynn became the fifth-fastest Illini to swim the 100 breast (1:04.03) and the fourth-fastest to swim the 200 breast (2:16.50) in school history.
The Illini will have a wealth of talent in the fly events, with seniors Conroy, McGowan, Manias and McKee, juniors Knight, Alyssa Petruzzello and Rodriguez and sophomores Marin Thompson and Emma Williams. Last season in the 100 fly, McGowan became the all-time fastest Illini in the event (54.58), while Petruzzello checked in at eighth (56.23). McGowan also became the third-fastest Illini to swim the 200 fly (2:02.04). Newcomers Hailey Booth and Meng will also look to make an impact.
Individual Medley and Relays
The Illini will have a mix of experience in the individual medley, with veterans McKee, Mehnert, Rodriguez and Toland joining newcomers Dlugopolski, McDermott and Roeing. Last season, Rodriguez climbed to third on the all-time fastest individuals list in the 400 IM with the sixth-fastest performance in Illini history (4:19.43). Several swimmers are back for relays as well, including Lamb, Manias, McGowan, McKee, Lynn and Pope. Newcomers Gibson and Megan Marchuk will also look for action on relay squads.
"Our conference is extremely competitive," diving coach Chris Waters said. "The diving keeps jumping exponentially, which is great because it keeps pushing us. My expectations are to see if we can take the steps we've been taking and jump a few rungs higher."
Last season, Fisher posted four first-place scores, including a one-meter dive (285.30) that tied her personal best and ranked fourth all-time for the Illini. Fisher also earned the third-highest platform dive score (162.80) in school history.
"We've had a core group of four girls together now for three years, so they have their own expectations, and they know what I expect from them," Waters said. "This year should go very well. Everyone has taken little steps, and I think this would be one of those years where it would be nice to see them take an even larger step forward and make bigger improvements."
"Each of our returning divers brings a different aspect of leadership to the table," Waters said. "The freshmen can go to each of them for different things and learn something unique from each person."