Rats raving about swim teams’ big leaps forward: 50-50-50

By Joe Katz

Men’s swimming finished sixth at UAAs. Women’s swimming finished seventh. There are eight teams in this league. What are you all so excited about?

Sean: It’s hard for people to grasp how big of a deal sixth and seventh place out of eight is in UAA swimming, but we’re talking about a men’s and women’s league that would easily have six teams in the national rankings if they all opted in. Also consider where these teams were as recently as three years ago: Current women’s head coach Sheila O’Connor was the only one heading men’s and women’s teams with single-digit rosters. Both squads had to bus off campus in the early morning just to find a pool. Being competitive on any sort of team level wasn’t even a consideration.

Now both O’Connor and Villarreal have been able to push their recruiting and training efforts to the maximum, and the results have showed.

Joe: It’s easy to just look at the overall standings and dismiss these results. If you take a glance over at the score column, though, you’ll get a much better idea of how far these teams have come just since last year. The women were more than 80 points behind seventh last year. While their 2006 margin wasn’t exactly comfortable, they managed to leapfrog another squad for the first time in eight years, a big step forward. The men finished sixth last year but had to scratch and claw their way to get there. This year they were closer to fourth place than they were to seventh. They’re moving closer and closer to establishing themselves as a middle-of-the-pack UAA squad, something any number of swimming coaches across Division III would be thrilled to achieve.

They’re not on top of the world yet. But last weekend proves that men’s and women’s swimming are making steady progress. Any way you look at it, it was one of the highlights in the program’s history. Bigger rosters naturally mean more points, but the individual efforts have been incredible

Sean: Shane Carlson, Alex Stabell, Charles Byrd, Kaitlin Roche, Rachel Zarnke, and Sarah Laws all established themselves as big-time names in their rookie seasons, and they figure to only get better. Both the men and the women lost significant contributors from last year to graduation, but they still got better as teams. These have clearly become programs, not just some great individual talents.

I also have to give special mention to third-year distance swimmer Katherine Yang, who will be graduating early. Despite a job search that cut into her training time, the team’s “fearless captain,” like an outside shooter in basketball that can lead her team regardless of scoring, helped this team advance further than many expected. Yang did improve individually this year, but for the next three years her contribution will be remembered as getting this team off the ground.

Joe: Yang’s a special sort of swimmer, and she’s leaving quite a legacy behind. Fortunately for the Maroons, it looks like there are plenty of candidates to fill the hole she’ll leave in the lineup. What she started should keep rolling for many seasons to come.

• How does the loss of second-year forward Nicaya Rapier to an ACL injury impact the women’s basketball team?

Sean: You don’t wish an injury on anybody, but on Rapier? That’s just a crime.

When Rapier went down awkwardly after a layup attempt, everybody knew it had to be serious. This 5-foot-7 player (don’t believe the roster’s listed height) who regularly pulls down offensive rebounds with four opposing players around her was on the floor in obvious pain.

I remember covering this team last year and always asking about Rapier because of her rebounding stats. I’d be fishing for comments strictly on her playing ability, but I would, without exception, always get unprompted comments about her attitude and smile. Her numbers are indisputable (14.7 boards per 40 minutes), but you also can’t overestimate her other effects on a team whose play style is inextricably tied to energy.

Joe: What a horrible ending to Rapier’s first career start. Yet, there she was at the end of the game, smiling about the Maroons’ ultimate victory. Nothing seems to get her down. She’ll be back next year hungrier than ever, and with the graduation of forwards Susie Gutowski and Jenn Kaiser she’ll be getting more minutes.

Rapier had suffered an ACL injury in her other leg in high school. It’s relatively common for the complementary ligament to come under excess strain and tear. Nicaya will end up missing only four regular season games, and it’s hard, if not totally impossible, to imagine the Maroons making the tournament this time around. If she can return at full health and eager to make up for lost time in her third year, this unfortunate development might turn out to be a blessing in disguise.

Sean: My favorite Rapier anecdote comes from head coach Aaron Roussell, relaying his conversations with other UAA coaches: “They’ll say to me after we play them, ‘We watched the video and saw her numbers, but you just have to see it to believe it.’”

I still become incredulous watching her sometimes, though announcing games I’ve often just taken to saying “Of course, Rapier ends up with the board…”

Joe: I have to admit, it’s going to be tough calling the Wash U game without her.