In less than a week, Northern Arizona’s six-woman swim and dive senior class will be in the midst of yet another title defense.
With a run of four straight Western Athletic Conference titles, predating all of the Lumberjacks currently on the roster, Northern Arizona will try for a fifth straight in Houston during the four-day meet.
“If you look at the banners in the Dome, I think men's cross country, indoor and outdoor track are at that. So there’s some significance it,” said Lumberjacks head coach Andy Johns. “It’s more than just one recruiting class, it’s a lot of years to be able to put it back-to-back like that.”
The defense could get off to a strong start, as Northern Arizona will enter the opening day of the meet with a shot at three gold medals. The meet begins Wednesday as finals are held for the 800-yard freestyle relay, 200-yard medley relay and 1-meter diving board.
Tatiana Kurach ranks atop the WAC on the 1-meter board, with teammates Jenny Cheetham and Christina Torrente just behind in second and fourth. Another group of Lumberjacks, Kimmy Richter, Sam Milewski, Elisa Rodriguez and Monique King, enter the championship meet with the fastest 800 relay time. Rodriguez, as well as Sarah O’Connor, Hope Williams and Alina Staffeldt, arrive in Houston boasting the second-best 200 medley relay time.
DEPTH SETS UP SUCCESS
The first day serves as a prime example for Northern Arizona’s key to success through the run of titles.
Eight athletes will qualify for the A-Final at the WAC championship meet, and the Lumberjacks enter with at least two athletes in the top eight of three-quarters of the individual events. Additionally, Northern Arizona has placed three athletes in the top eight of a third of the events.
“The depth has a lot to do with it. We have training groups of four or five people in the same event,” said junior Sarah Takach, who enters the meet in the top eight of three individual events. “Hopefully when we are going into conference this year, we are going to have two or three people in the A final per event. I know me and my training partners, that's our goal in the 400 IM.”
Sarah Takach practices Thursday afternoon with the Northern Arizona swim team.
Takach joins nine other swimmers with chances at multiple finals, including seniors Staffeldt, Richter and Roni Houck.
Among Northern Arizona’s impressive lineup of freestyle swimmers, Houck enters the meet sixth in the 50 freestyle and fifth in the 100 free. Swimming in seven races at last year’s conference meet, Houck will again have a heavy presence on the school’s relay teams.
All five teams have a shot at a medal, with the 200 free relay ranked fourth, the 400 free relay second and the 400 medley relay fourth. The success in the relays lends to Houck’s belief in why Northern Arizona has continued its title reign from year to year.
“We are such a big family. Being really tight-knit has helped us overcome so many devastations and trials throughout my four years,” Houck said. “Even though the dynamic changes every year, no matter what ... we try to welcome everybody in because we know at the end of the year, we are all going to work hard to obtain we want.”
While the team’s depth will boost its chances of another repeat, Northern Arizona heads to Houston with a few women pursuing golds.
Richter enters with the top time in the 200 free, while King tops the charts in the 500 free and 1650 free as well. Staffeldt, a seven-time WAC gold medal winner, leads four Lumberjack women inside the top eight of the 200 butterfly, holding the WAC’s best time and adding the No. 2 time in the 100 fly.
Added to Kurach’s top score in the 1-meter, Northern Arizona’s top chances for gold medals come from four women from three different countries. Richter and King hail from New Zealand, while Staffeldt arrived in Flagstaff from Germany and Kurach dove at Henderson State in Arkansas after leaving Russia.
“I like the mix on our team. All of our girls are enjoying a cultural experience,” said Johns, with seven international athletes joining 16 women from Arizona as well as others from six states across the Western United States. “It’s a nice mix and if you look at our record board, a lot of our record board is foreigners.”
DIVERS HELP FUEL RUN
“We have a target on our back, but I think we have the best depth and the best team out there in our conference,” said senior Audrey Mann. “I think we are more prepared than the other teams with altitude training, and I think that really benefits us. Our divers are awesome and they really help us.”
During Northern Arizona’s run, the Lumberjacks have won the past three gold medals on the 3-meter board. Prior to Kurach’s gold last season, Alexa Geiger finished first in 2016 and Chelsea Jackson began the run with the top finish in 2015.
Geiger added a gold on the 1-meter in 2017, while Jackson took silver in the 1-meter in 2016 and Christina Torrente repeated the feat in 2017.
While Geiger graduated following last year’s title, all six of this year’s divers will return next year. With Kurach and Torrente in their junior seasons, Cheetham enters her first WAC meet in her freshman season.
While the group isn’t quite as experienced from top to bottom as it has been in past years, diving coach Nikki Huffman said the large invitationals the team competed at during the season helped prepare for the championship meet.
“Even just having the numbers helps because that gets you more used to the conference or the zone championships,” said Huffman, with the large number of competitors leading to longer breaks as opposed to a rapid pace of dual meets. “The more we do that, it just gets them more mentally prepared as we go in.”
The women will compete on the 3-meter on Thursday after the 1-meter takes place Wednesday, with the platform wrapping up the meet as part of the final night on Saturday. In the pool, Northern Arizona will close the meet with three of its strongest events, the 1650 freestyle, 200 butterfly and 400 freestyle relay.
“Each year is a little different, each one has been special for different reasons,” Johns said. “We will see how this one turns out, but I like this team and I like our chances.”