October 13, 1998
The mark of any good team is the ability to improve year after year, which is the case with the Notre Dame women’s swimming and diving team.
Under fourth-year head swimming coach Bailey Weathers, the Irish women improved once again in the 1997-98 season by repeating as BIG EAST champions, sending its largest contingent to the NCAA championships, placing 23rd as a team at the NCAAs and having two swimmers earn All-America honors.
This season, Weathers feels that the team once again has the opportunity to improve on those accomplishments.
“Two things are really important to us this season,” Weathers says. “One is repeating as BIG EAST Champions and the other is moving up at the NCAAs. There’s no doubt in my mind that Villanova has the best team this year since I’ve been at Notre Dame. Accomplishing the first goal will be a lot harder this year. If we’re able to repeat at the BIG EAST that will be a major step.
“Our overall goal is to move up at the NCAAs by getting all of our relays there and to be five or six places higher than we’ve ever placed. I think we could even place seven or eight places higher this season.”
To meet those goals, the Irish return a number of key swimmers and bring in another solid recruiting class. At the top of the list of returnees is three-time All-American Shannon Suddarth (Topeka, Kan.). A year ago, Suddarth placed 11th in the 200-yard breaststroke and eighth in the 100 breaststroke as a sophomore after earning All-America honors in the 200 breaststroke in 1997. The Irish also return two other 1998 NCAA qualifiers in senior Brittany Kline (Crystal Lake, Ill.), who joined Suddarth in the 100 breaststroke, and Carrie Nixon (Ouray, Colo.), who was a part of the 200-medley relay team which placed 19th. Notre Dame also has another All-American in Alison Newell (Parker, Colo.) returning for her junior season.
The freshman class of 2002 comes in with probably the best credentials of any group of newcomers in Irish history.
“I expect the freshman to actually score more points than our junior class,” Weathers said. “It’s amazing the talent and ability that’s in our freshmen class, but it’s also a class with experience at the national level.”
One swimmer with national-level experience is sprint freestyler Brooke Davey (Hopewell Junction, N.Y.). Davey finished eighth at the 1996 Olympic Trials in the 50 freestyle as a high school junior and held a world ranking in that event from 1995-98. Fellow freshman Allison Lloyd (Ft. Wayne, Ind.) also competed in the 1996 Olympic Trials in the 100 breaststroke.
“Allison Lloyd gives us a lot of comfort in the breaststroke, because we know that we can be really choosy the next three recruiting classes,” Weathers says. “She makes Shannon (Suddarth) and Brittany (Kline) faster and I think they both will make her faster.”
Adding to Weather’s outstanding freshman class of swimmers is Kelly Hecking (Rutherford, N.J.), Maureen Hillenmeyer (Carmel, Ind.) and Tara Riggs (Mt. Pleasant, S.C.), who will swim both butterfly and freestyle for the Irish.
“Tara comes in as the do-it-all team leader and person,” Weathers says. “She’ll surprise a lot of people.
“Whether or not she has the physical strength to be as fast as Linda (Gallo) throughout the season is yet to be seen, but if she can learn to use her walls well, I think she can control a meet for us a lot of times this season.”
Joining Riggs in the mid-distance freestyle events will be freshman Kristin Van Saun (Lawrence, Kan.), Brenda Reilly (White Plains, N.Y.) and Newell, who will all probably make up the 800 free relay. Weathers also expects Van Saun, Riggs, senior Jill Matalavage (Mechanicsburg, Pa.) and sophomore Stacy Dougherty (Hurley, N.Y.) to be the primary distance freestylers.
Out of the freestyle events, however, Notre Dame’s strength is in the sprints. With Davey, Hillenmeyer, Hecking, Reilly, Nixon and junior Laura Shepard (Westport, Conn.), the Irish have both youth and experience at the collegiate level.
“We have experience with Carrie Nixon and Laura Shepard,” Weathers says. “Carrie was an NCAA qualifier last year and improved dramatically over the course of the year. Laura has always been an outstanding sprinter for us and has done a great job for us on the relays.
“When you add Maureen Hillenmeyer, who won junior nationals in the 50 free, and Brooke Davey, who was in the top eight in the Olympic Trials, I think that gives us four great sprinters. Plus we have kids that are more middle distance freestylers, but have a lot of ability and could really come into play on the sprint relays.”
Although the team is very strong in the freestyle events, the team’s strongest stroke is the breaststroke. The Irish had two breaststrokers, Kline and Suddarth, qualify for the NCAAs a year ago. With the addition of Lloyd, whose personal best time already equals what it took to make it to the NCAAs a year ago, and sophomore Kathleen Rimkus (Chantilly, Va.), Weathers believes there’s no question that the Irish have the four best breaststrokers in the BIG EAST.
Notre Dame’s second biggest specialty area is the backstroke. With the addition of Hecking, the New Jersey state record-holder in the 100 backstroke, the Irish can look to sophomores Allison Vendt (North Easton, Mass.) and Tiffany O’Brien (Redmond, Wash.) in the 200 backstroke. Hillenmeyer and senior Meghan Eckstein (Cincinnati, Ohio) should also contribute to the group.
Where the Irish are not as deep is in the butterfly. Liz Barger (Littleton, Colo.) and Newell provide the team with a good one-two punch.
“Just in terms of shear placing at conference, Liz and Allison have never lost a 100 or 200 butterfly race. I’m really looking forward to them holding on to that distinction this season,” Weathers says.
In the individual medley events, senior Anne Iacobucci (Lincoln, R.I.) will focus on both the 200 and 400-yard IM’s this season.
“Anne Iacobucci has been our long-standing, most versatile swimmer,” Weathers says. “This is kind of an exciting year for her, because for once we have a well-balanced team and we don’t need Anne to step into the role of doing one other stroke. Now she can really train just for the individual medleys.”
Adding to the individual medley group for the Irish are O’Brien, Suddarth, Van Saun and Hillenmeyer, who will probably swim the 200 IM at the BIG EAST meet.
Another area of strength for the team is in diving. Notre Dame currently has six divers on the 1998-99 roster including two juniors
“There’s no question that this is the strongest diving team that we’ve ever had,” Weathers says. “We have really good leadership in our diving program with Gina Ketelhohn and Rhianna Saunders. Both of them are very mature and work extremely hard. In addition to them, we have three sophomores – Francie McCoppin, Jessica Johnstone and Karli Richards – who will make it really hard for us to decide who to take for conference.”
Adding to Weathers and diving coach Caiming Xie’s dilemma will be freshman Heather Mattingly (Houston, Texas). Mattingly, a three-time All-American, qualified for 1998 U.S. Senior Nationals in the one-meter, three-meter and synchronized diving competitions. In addition to being named the Texas Diver of the Year in 1998, Mattingly placed third in the one-meter and fourth in the three-meter diving competition at the 1998 Junior Nationals.
In the relays, Weathers will look both toward the returnees and the freshman to contribute and possibly qualify more of them to the NCAA championship. The sprint freestyle relays will be dramatically improved with the adddition of Davey and Hillenmeyer.
“The 200 relay should be very fast, and it wouldn’t surprise me if we were a second and a half under the school record,” Weathers says. “The hardest part of the 400 free relay is going to be deciding who’s on the relay, because we probably have 10 people that we can pick from. It’s just a matter of who’s doing well at that point in the season.”
The key for the Irish in the medley relays this season should be Hecking, who will swim the backstroke legs.
“What we really missed last year was having a speed backstroker. That puts a lot of weight on Kelly Hecking’s shoulders, but she is a great sprint backstroker,” Weathers says. “I anticipate that she will improve dramatically, but even if she doesn’t, it still gives us a chance to have those relays at the NCAAs, which is pretty awesome at this point.”