As it does every season to start the new year, the Northern Arizona swimming and diving team will be in Tucson on Friday to face Arizona. The annual dual meet, scheduled for a noon start, will mark the 13th consecutive year that the Lumberjacks and Wildcats will collide at the Hillenbrand Aquatic Center.
"It's another opportunity to compete against high-level opponents," said Lumberjacks head coach Andy Johns. "We're going to do a few different things with some different people. That gives us an opportunity to evaluate as we approach the end of the year, as it gets us ready for the stretch."
Arizona, currently ranked No. 14 in the CollegeSwimming Dual Meet rankings and No. 17 in the CSCAA Coaches Poll, defeated Northern Arizona last year in Tucson, 178-118. The 60-point margin, however, was the Lumberjacks' closest defeat since 2007, and the meet was their most successful in years based on their five event wins.
The five event wins were a huge improvement from just one win the year prior. Of those five wins, NAU returns two victors in senior Alina Staffeldt and junior Tatiana Kurach. Staffeldt and Kurach also claimed first against Arizona when the Wildcats visited Flagstaff earlier in October 2016.
Prior to the holidays, the Lumberjacks knocked off San Diego, 174-100, on Dec. 16 to improve to 4-1 in dual meets, collecting 11 event wins versus the Toreros, with senior Kimmy Richter and freshman Sarah O'Connor each winning two events. Freshman Jenny Cheetham posted her first career dual meet victory in the only diving event.
On the swimming side, NAU continues to have at least one athlete in the WAC's top eight times in every event, including conference-leading times by Richter (200 freestyle), redshirt junior Monique King (500, 1,000 and mile freestyles) and Staffeldt (200 fly). King nabbed WAC Swimmer of the Week honors after the Texas Invitational, where NAU posted a number of all-time best times.
The divers have been led by Kurach and junior Christina Torrente, both of whom have been named WAC Diver of the Week. Along with the pair, junior Raquel Gonzales, junior Olivia Payne and Cheetham have already posted NCAA zone qualifying scores.
The Lumberjacks hope to start the stretch run to the WAC Championships strong Friday versus the nationally ranked Wildcats, who own a 3-1 dual meet record. What will differ this year will be the exclusion of Oregon State, which joined Northern Arizona and Arizona for the double dual in each of the past 12 years.
In Oregon State's place will be Rice and fellow WAC rival New Mexico State, although the Lumberjacks will not score against either team.