Subtraction may add up for men’s swimming

By Joe Katz

It was all over. Northe Saunders, one of the greatest to ever don the teardrop C swim cap, had hit the wall too late to move on to the Division III Championships final in the 100-yard freestyle. His collegiate career was at its end, and a new era in the history of Chicago men’s swimming had begun.

Almost 10 months later, it seems that life after the legend is working out just fine for these Maroons, who opened the season with five dual-meet wins, a tie against a Division I program, and a first-place finish in the Maroon Invitational.

“We had some good swims, and we had some things we had to work on,” said head coach George Villarreal, who is leading the Maroons for the third year. “It works out pretty well for us because we start rolling through our competitors and getting confident. Then, we come in and face some strong teams going later in the season.

“It prepares the team to swim against the really strong guys. At our conference meet they’ve already swum against guys who are in contention for a national championship.”

Replacing a two-time All-American who single-handedly placed Chicago among the top-40 teams at back-to-back NCAA meets shouldn’t be an easy process. Saunders tore the record book asunder, anchored a bevy of relay squads, and was a huge boon for recruiting during his time here. Yet in his absence the next generation immediately began to pull his name down from the Myers–McLoraine wall of honor. Led by first-years Shane Carlson (see Spotlight) and Alex Stabell (53.37-second win in the 50-yard butterfly at 15th-ranked Olivet) and third-year James Viccaro (four individual event wins), the team’s first-half performance demonstrated that they have the foundation to continue their evolution into a national force.

“The impact was similar to Joe Montana retiring from the 49ers, except that Steve Young in many ways is a better quarterback. We have replacement people coming in that are not going to be in shadow,” Villarreal said. “It would be great to have someone we could count on as an automatic qualifier, but we’ve got some people who are close to that.”

These three, along with third-year Pat Seastedt, second-year Andrew Kent, and a host of others, give the Maroons an unprecedented depth of talent. While they haven’t had many opportunities yet, the relay squads should be remarkably strong across the board. But these young guns will need to display the poise of veteran fourth-years to keep their run going. Over the coming weeks, the squad will face a remarkably strong schedule. Their stretch run pits them against regional powerhouses like Wheaton, Carthage, and Calvin.

“If it were up to me, we’d swim Kenyon and Emory every weekend, Kenyon and Denison every weekend,” Villarreal said. “It wouldn’t matter if we got outscored 300–5. It will instill our guys with confidence, so that they can stand up on the blocks and say, ‘This guy next to me? I’ve swum faster. I can beat him.’”

The toughest of all the upcoming competitions will almost certainly be the UAA Championships, scheduled for February 9-11 in Atlanta. The conference’s top tier of Emory, Wash U, and Carnegie has combined for 14 top-10 finishes in the NCAAs in the last six years. The middle-of-the-pack schools, including Chicago, NYU, and Case, have together scored points on 10 different occasions over the last five national meets. In 2004, only Rochester failed to score at the meet. The Maroons finished sixth in the conference meet last year, and finished 37th at Nationals.

“There is no conversation. This is the best men’s swimming conference in the country,” Villarreal said. “We have a few teams we’re looking to guard against, and a few teams we’re looking to chase down. But I think we can take incremental steps. Right now, I think our focus is much less on where we’re going to score overall as a team than just getting good swims out of everybody, and the rest will take care of itself.”

The team’s next big test starts tonight, as the Chicago Invite kicks off in Ratner at 6:30 p.m. The meet, which runs through tomorrow evening, features a challenging field including Carthage, Calvin College, and an Olivet squad that beat the hosts 160–132 last Saturday.

“We like the invitational format because it gives a chance to practice in a UAA setting,” Villarreal said. “Really, for us, it comes down to how well our swimmers swim during the year, whether they improve their times.”

If you haven’t seen this squad yet, this is your last chance for a while. After tomorrow night, Chicago won’t be home again until the team hosts the Midwest Invitational February 17-18. By that point, the Maroons will have already gone through their taper period to ensure they’ll stay fresh for the league meet and will be looking towards the NCAA Championships.

Spotlight: Shane Carlson

On a team that’s increasingly aiming for broad-front victories, Carlson has emerged as a top candidate to replace Saunders as the face of Chicago men’s swimming. In just his fourth collegiate meet, Carlson began to make his bid for a Hall of Fame plaque, setting school records with a 16:28.89 first-place finish in the 1,650-yard freestyle that barely fell short of NCAA provisional qualification and a 4:15.92 performance in the 400-yard individual medley that was good for second at the Maroon Invite. The 1,650-yard win was one of eight individual events he has won so far this year. He will try to repeat the feat at the Chicago Invite, aiming to break his own program mark in the 400 individual medley shortly after 9 a.m. tomorrow in what should be one of the most exciting and watchable races of the meet.