Dec. 9, 2014

In one of the most beloved Walt Disney movie classics, Peter Pan utters the phrase, “All it takes is faith and trust.” For four University of Notre Dame seniors, perhaps no other phrase can sum up their careers with the Irish diving squad better.

Allison Casareto, Nick Nemetz, Michael Kreft and Theodore – “Ted” – Wagner were thrust into an unfamiliar role their junior year. With no true seniors on either the men’s or women’s diving squads – and facing a new conference with the University’s switch from the BIG EAST to the Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC) in 2013-14 – all four had to adapt and learn on the fly to numerous challenges.

“It was really tough for our teams, having no seniors last year and switching from the BIG EAST to the ACC,” Casareto says. “I think that transition would’ve been hard even for someone who was an experienced leader, so for us, it was even more difficult. At times, we had no idea what we were doing.”

One of the first major differences the fearless foursome tackled was guiding their teams through a calendar change. The ACC Championship meet took place in mid-February compared to late February for the BIG EAST, which affected weekly workouts and tapering schedules.

“The change in schedule initially threw us off the routine we were used to,” Casareto says. “It really did take going through a full season [in the new conference] to understand how we should be performing at certain points in the year. The cycle is different, and not one of us was able to predict what would happen that first year. We didn’t ever think we would be faced with such a complication.”

From the men’s perspective, the switch in conferences was a simple change for Nemetz, Kreft and Wagner.

“Once you get past freshman year, the team bunches up together as a whole, with everyone helping everyone,” Nemetz says. “We may have assumed more important roles, but our grade level didn’t define us.”

Their grade level certainly didn’t prevent success for these savvy divers in the early years of their Irish careers.

At the 2013 BIG EAST Championships – their sophomore campaign – Nemetz, Kreft and Wagner took three of the top five spots in the 1-meter diving. Kreft took second in the 3-meter event, with Nemetz and Wagner also placing in the top ten. Meanwhile, Casareto won the 1-meter women’s event and placed third in the 3-meter competition.

“It’s all about knowing what to expect,” Kreft says. “We’ve seen a wide range of opportunities, and experienced many different scenarios, so accumulating all this experience really helps us be the best leaders we can be, especially in sharing our knowledge with the younger divers.”

Yet all four divers still recognize that leadership is a journey and a process.

“The amount of time it took for us to assume more responsibility had a clear effect on our ability to help the team. It took a while for us to step up into that position [last season], but this year we automatically assumed it with confidence,” Wagner says. “We are a much closer, tight-knit group because of it. Our closeness as a team really helps in the decision making process.”

And when it comes to diving, all are in agreement that constructive feedback is important.

“I automatically assumed a leadership role, even as a little kid,” Nemetz says. “I’ve always been a pretty self-taught person, without too many divers to look up to growing up – so I’ve always felt comfortable helping those younger than me.”

In contrast, Kreft was always one of the younger children in his hometown diving club, with plenty of mentors to look up to.

“I spent a lot of time looking up to older kids,” the Solon, Ohio native says. “It wasn’t until very recently that I became one of the older guys on a team, so this was all very unfamiliar for me. Having the others alongside me, and the experiences that we’ve shared, that’s what truly prepared me for this role.”

Faced with a crucial role in an unfamiliar situation, the divers turned to each other to provide important leadership elements.

“We recognize that not one of us really stands out as a single leader,” Casareto says. “We went through last year as a unit, and we know that each of us brings our own skillset to the diving boards when it comes to guiding our team.”

Part of providing feedback and offering guidance means each senior often assumes the role of assistant coach – a role that in the sport of diving becomes second nature over time.

“There’s only one coach, and eleven divers; so it’s hard for one coach to watch all eleven,” Nemetz says. “We all try to step up and help out with the coaching process. Even the younger divers will point out stuff the upperclassmen can work on. By doing this, everyone has experience in being a mentor, which really helps in your later years.”

And when it comes to lessons they share with incoming freshmen, each diver takes a slightly different approach.

“[I think] It’s good to make mistakes,” Wagner says. “Those experiences helped us reach where we’re at now. We have to help the freshman when they have a bad meet, because it happens to everyone. Learning from your mistakes as they happen is just as important as trying not to make one.”

“Freshmen come in and don’t realize how long and taxing the season is, so my biggest goal as a leader is preventing them from burning out too quickly or trying to overdo it too soon,” Kreft adds. “We have a season that spans from October to April, and we need to prepare them on what to expect with this length.”

“One of the most important things for a freshman to learn is communication,” Casareto chimes in. “As a diver, you need to be able to express your thoughts, and understand the advice others are giving to you.”

Nemetz elaborates with, “We need to dive well when it counts. Locking down [your dives] at conference championships is the most important part of our season, something we all set our sights on, and we need to make sure the team recognizes and works towards this goal.”

In reflecting on what advice they wish to pass on to their underclassmen teammates, the reality of this being their final season begins to set in.

“This is my last year of diving,” Kreft says. “I will never get the chance to competitively dive again. This alone provides me not only with the motivation to succeed, but more importantly, to make our last year great.”

“It was all our positivity,” Casareto says. “We went into it with the right attitude, knowing that we had to set the tone for the team. This year, we knew exactly how to do that.”

“We just want to have the best season possible,” Kreft says. “When we focus on the team, all the numerical goals will fall into place.”

The foursome was all focused on its respective teams this past weekend at the annual Hawkeye Invitational meet – a meet that both squads won in 2013.

Casareto turned in an outstanding performance, as she claimed first place on both the 1- and 3-meter boards, setting a meet record on the 1-meter to wrap up the fall semester on a high note. Nemetz set his own personal record – and school record – in platform diving with his sixth-place, 294.35 score. Kreft placed fifth in the 3-meter (344.15) and fourth in the 1-meter (332.10) before claiming eighth in the platform competition (250.85). Wagner finished 13th in 1-meter, 12th in 3-meter and ninth in platform.

The ACC Diving Championships are slated for Feb. 18-21 alongside the ACC Women’s Swimming Championships, while the ACC Men’s Swimming Championships are set for the following week (Feb. 25-28).