Jan. 11, 2002
Some might accuse Notre Dame head coach Bailey Weathers and his Fighting Irish women’s swimming and diving squad as being a little greedy. It’s as if five consecutive BIG EAST Conference championships and solid NCAA championship showings the past three seasons are not enough to satisfy the competitive drive of even the best athletes. But good athletes always want more. Weathers and the Irish squad are no exception, and in 2001-02 they are poised for their best season yet.
“I expect us to take that next step nationally this season,” Weathers says. “Our relays are solid and because of that, I think we should step into more of a top 15 role. This season, unlike years past when we have taken a team attitude, we’ve talked more about being competitive as individuals and qualifying a large group for the NCAA meet.”
The Irish are taking on all comers this season in order to prepare for the NCAA meet. Notre Dame begins the season with dual meets against solid opponents Pittsburgh, a fellow BIG EAST member, and Michigan State, an up-and-coming program in the always competitive Big Ten Conference.
After traveling to Florida International in October, the Irish then go to West Lafayette, Ind., and face Purdue, hoping to avenge the only dual-meet loss the Irish suffered in 2001.
After closing the fall season at the Minnesota Invitational and the Notre Dame Invitational, the Irish face traditional dual-meet rivals Northwestern, Michigan, Villanova, Illinois and Iowa twice in the winter.
“I am excited about our schedule,” Weathers says. “We face tough competition early on with meets against Pittsburgh and Michigan State. We set up the schedule so the Purdue meet is the focus of the fall for us. Then we are going back to Minnesota, which gives us a chance to swim against some great teams with a good deal of depth. In the second semester, we face a number of difficult opponents before the BIG EAST meet and the NCAAs.”
Weathers knows talent alone will not carry the Irish through this difficult schedule. They will depend on the tremendous leadership of the senior class, especially captains Maureen Hillenmeyer and Tara Riggs.
“This season is really going to be unique for us,” Weathers says. “It is the first time our senior class is equally solid both as athletes and leaders. The women in the senior class have developed at Notre Dame. They have become better swimmers and learned their leadership skills at Notre Dame. As a team we have grown a lot in terms of our focus on the sport. It shows on all class levels and in all events.”
Weathers and the Irish need not look any farther for proof of this than in the relay events.
After claiming the 200 and 400 medley relays at the 2001 BIG EAST Championships, Notre Dame is looking to make a clean sweep of all five relay events at the conference meet in 2002.
“For first time in a long time, we are solid in all of our relays,” Weathers says. “If we stay healthy, we do not have a relay weakness this year. A lot of that comes from added depth in the freestyle sprints. We have a lot of individuals in the program adding depth in every spot we need for the relays.”
Back for the Irish after missing the 2001 season with a shoulder injury is senior Carrie Nixon. Nixon is the most decorated swimmer in Notre Dame history, earning All-America honors in 2000 in the 50-yard freestyle. A 14-time BIG EAST champion, Nixon also has earned honorable mention All-America honors in the 100 freestyle and 100 butterfly event at the NCAA meet, and in 2000 was named the BIG EAST Swimmer of the Championship.
Other returnees in the sprint freestyle events for the Irish include seniors Brooke Davey and Kelly Hecking and sophomore Danielle Hulick. Hecking and Hulick were members of the BIG EAST champion 200 and 400 medley relay teams, while Davey is a three-time conference champion in the 200 and 400 freestyle relay.
The Irish also added four individuals in freshmen Katie Eckholt, Hannah Pawlewicz, and Sarah Alwen and junior transfer Heidi Hendrick, who will add much needed depth behind Nixon in the sprint relays. Eckholt, a 2000 Olympic Trials qualifier, was a seven-time All-American and won Nebraska swimmer-of-the-year honors in both 2000 and 2001. She also has posted a 50 freestyle time of 23.0. Pawlewicz holds her high school’s records in the 200 and 500 freestyle and was a four-time all-state honoree at Naperville North High School in Naperville, Ill. Alwen ranked as the number-one female for her age group in her home country of Egypt. Hendrick, who transferred to Notre Dame after competing for two years at the University of Texas, posted a personal best in the 50 freestyle (24.40) in 2001.
In the middle and distance freestyle events, the Irish have to replace Kristen Van Saun, the 2000 BIG EAST 500 freestyle champion. Riggs and juniors Nicole Kohrt and Lindsay Moorhead should fill the shoes of Van Saun and provide a great core in the distance events. Add junior Katie Cavadini, sophomore Sara Cerreta and newcomers Alwen, Eckholt and Kelli Barton, and the Irish are solid in these events.
“Lindsay is our primary 200 freestyler,” Weathers said. “The other women add strength and depth. The nice thing about having more depth is it frees up Maureen to swim more events in dual meets. She will now be able to focus on other stroke events and the individual medley.”
Even with Notre Dame’s tremendous depth in the freestyle events, Notre Dame’s strongest strokes could be the backstroke and butterfly. Leading the backstroke corps is Hecking, who, along with Nixon, is the winningest swimmer in BIG EAST and Notre Dame history with 14 conference championships. Last season, Hecking placed 13th in the 200 backstroke at the NCAA Championships, earning honorable mention All-America honors for the third consecutive season.
“Kelly has only been beaten three or four times in her career and is still probably mad about those losses,” Weathers said. “This season, for the first time, Kelly is going to face a lot of challenges from inside the team in terms of maintaining her school record in the 100 backstroke.”
Some of those challengers include Hulick, who made dramatic improvements on her back toward the end of last season, Alwen and freshman Kristen Peterson. Peterson was a three-time, all-state selection, while setting the city record in the 200 individual medley and 100 backstroke. Others who also will contribute in the backstroke events are sophomores Marie Labosky, an honorable mention All-American in the 400 individual medley, Jessica Roberts, who is fully recovered from a bicycle accident that caused her to miss most of last season, and Lisa Garcia.
The Irish also should be strong in the butterfly events in 2002 as Nixon and sophomore Lisa D’Olier lead an extremely talented group of butterfliers. Nixon tied for 10th in the 100 butterfly at the 2000 NCAA Championships, earning honorable mention All-America honors. She also won the 100 butterfly at the 2000 BIG EAST Championships and was 29th at the 2000 Olympic Trials.
D’Olier won four BIG EAST titles in her first year of competition, claiming the 100 and 200 butterfly and swimming the butterfly leg of the winning 200 and 400 medley relay teams.
The Irish will also lean on sophomores Lisa Garcia and Sarah Bowman, who placed second and third, respectively, in the 200 butterfly at the BIG EAST meet last season. Garcia was also fifth in the 100 butterfly at the conference meet, while Bowman tallied 11 top-five finishes in 2000-01.
Freshman Brooke Taylor, who qualified for senior nationals at the age of 14 and participated in the 100 and 200 butterfly at the 2000 Olympic Trials, should make an immediate impact this season as well. A four-time All-American and Florida Swimmer of the Year, Taylor’s best time ties the Notre Dame school record in the 200 butterfly.
Junior Amy Deger did a good job enabling a young butterfly crew to progress and mature last season after the injury to Nixon. Pawlewicz, Garcia and Bowman all showed great proimise and only will continue to get better.
“I am looking forward to watching all of the butterfliers swim this year,” Weathers says. “The butterfliers are the most versatile athletes in our program. All of our butterfliers are also good in the individual medley races. Their versatility is a strength and adds variety to the events they can swim throughout the season.”
The Irish have a strong group of breaststrokers led by senior Allison Lloyd, who qualified for the NCAA Championships in 1999. She is also a great leader and will mentor the younger athletes this season.
The young guns are led by sophomores Laurie Musgrave and Jilen Siroky. Musgrave, the 2000 Colorado state swimmer of the year, swam the breaststroke leg on the BIG EAST-winning 200 medley relay. Siroky was a member of the United States Olympic Team in 1996, and the World Cup team in 1998. She also won the 1996 national championship in the 100 breaststroke. Freshmen Georgia Healey, who was a four-time All-American, and Barton, a high school All-American last season and a senior national qualifier, will add tremendous depth to this event.
“I have enjoyed the breaststrokers and they continue to do an excellent job. Allison will be a great leader for us, while Jilen and Laurie did a fantastic job last year. Add Georgia and Kelli to the mix and it will be a real battle for the relay spots.”
The individual medley events will be interesting because the Irish have competitors coming from every type of situation. Labosky qualified for the NCAAs in both the 200 and 400 individual medley races last year, setting the school record in both events. Nixon has recorded provisional qualifying times in the IM events during her career. D’Olier and Garcia, who placed fourth in the 200 IM at the BIG EAST meet last season, will add depth to these events, while Hillenmeyer and Barton will compete for spots at the BIG EAST Championships.
Head diving coach Caiming Xie also has much to be excited about this season as he returns three-time NCAA qualifier Heather Mattingly and promising sophomore Meghan Perry-Eaton.
Mattingly earned honorable mention All-America honors after placing 12th at the 2001 NCAA Championships on the three-meter board. She also holds the Notre Dame records for 10 dives on the one-meter board (425.40) and both three-meter marks.
Perry-Eaton, a senior national qualifier prior to entering Notre Dame, returns after missing the 2000-01 season with a shoulder injury. In one of Perry-Eaton’s first events back this season, she set the Notre Dame record for six dives on the one-meter board with 287.70 points.
“I think Heather and Megan are the two most talented athletes we have had in the diving program,” Weathers says. “Heather had a great summer and dove well at senior nationals. I expect Meghan to also qualify for the NCAA meet this season.”
Sophomore transfer Kristina Kennedy and freshman Chrissy Habeeb will add depth to this year’s diving roster and, according to Weathers, both have a lot of room to develop and improve.
With all of this talent, it is hard not to be greedy if you are in Weathers’ shoes, but he also recognizes with an abundance of talent comes potential problems.
“That is not the case with this group though,” Weathers says. “We are in a great situation because we have 30 really fun kids on the team, who are competing for the team and not for themselves.
“With the way the BIG EAST Conference works and swimmers automatically qualifying if they reach already established standards, it gives everyone a chance to compete and I don’t have to pick our 18 best swimmers. I am not sure I would be able to do that.”
Thankfully for Weathers, he does not have to pick and choose. Everybody can compete in helping the Irish reach their goal of a top 15 national finish, finally achieving the level of the nation’s elite. “I thought last year was our best team and this team by far is better,” Weathers says. “If everything falls into place.” Let the chips fall where they may.