November 14, 2006

Optimism abounds as swimming stays on pace

It’s still a little early in the season to be making playoff predictions for Chicago swimming, but with the early returns in, all signs point to a promising year as both sides continue to match and improve on their peak forms from 2005.

Hosting 11 teams at the Maroon Invite this weekend, the home squads wiped out any thoughts that their early successes were a fluke with a pair of impressive performances. Lifted by third-year Zach Ergish, the men continued to overpower opponents, taking top honors at the meet for the second straight year and adding a first-place finish with 891 points to their perfect 3–0 mark on the year. The women repeated last year’s third-place outing with 517 points, but a nearly broken school record and an impressive performance from first-year Cassie O’Neill showed that this rookie-based lineup is a far cry from last year’s model.

In a competition that has grown in stature with each passing year, the event featured some familiar foes for the Maroons as well as a number of first-time entrants.

“This year with 11 teams, it was a lot more than we’ve had in the past. Last year we only had six,” head coach Jason Weber said. “I think people are spreading the word that this pool is fast, and they really enjoy coming to this meet.”

For a Chicago squad focused on making a splash at conferences this year, this weekend in many ways marked the first test of how the Maroons will fare at the championships. With eight events spread over a day and a half, the meet simulated the UAA format that demands endurance from swimmers in addition to top performances.

“It’s a lot longer than a normal dual meet,” Weber said. “This definitely helps them get used to swimming fast in the morning and then again at night and swimming tired. I think a lot of swimmers were surprised how fast they were given how tired they were.”

“This meet was the first meet in which many people were able to swim events that are in the meet line-up at UAAs, but not in dual meets,” Ergish said. “This allowed people to understand what they have to improve upon in their races. It also incorporated the prelim-final schedule, which allows us to see how well we swim when we are tired and have swum multiple events.”

After this weekend’s performance, the South Siders remain on track to cause an upset at conferences. The men in particular should be a strong force in the water after turning in five first-place finishes this weekend.

“The swim was pretty dominating because we had so many guys at the top,” Weber said. “We have a lot of guys swimming a lot faster than they were at this time last year.”

Giving a big boost to the team, last season’s rookie phenom, second-year Shane Carlson won the 1,650-yard freestyle (16:27.56) and helped power the 800-yard relay to first (7:17.21). One of 2006’s standout newcomers, first-year Brian Young, also came up big for Chicago, turning heads with a first-place outing in the 100-yard backstroke (54.87) and a runner-up effort in the 200-yard backstroke (2:00.49).

While Carlson and Young were both impressive, it was Ergish who really blew his opponents out of the water. The breaststroke swimmer placed in the top three in three events, finishing first to the line in the 200-yard individual medley (2:03.68) and in the 200-yard breaststroke (2:15.03) while coming in third in the 400-yard individual medley (4:20.52). His times were all the more impressive as he continues to battle an ongoing knee problem caused by either underdeveloped muscle on one side or a ligament issue that causes it to flare up from time to time.

“Zach’s so versatile that you can really put him in anything,” Weber said. “He’s all around one of our best swimmers, and he’s going a lot faster than he was at this time last year.”

On the women’s side, it was O’Neill once again who stepped up for the Maroons. After lagging behind in fourth or fifth for most of the race, the rookie battled back with a strong finish to claim first in the 200-yard breaststroke (2:30.81) and just missed taking the gold in the 100-yard breaststroke (1:10.83). Classmate Alicia Bushman contributed Chicago’s other top finish, coming in ahead of the rest on the 200-yard backstroke in 2:18.07.

While the women may not be UAA contenders just yet, the young squad is definitely taking steps in the right direction. The 400-yard medley relay team of Bushman, O’Neill, first-year Kathie Ang, and second-year Sarah Laws turned in a 4:17.73 time that just missed eclipsing the school record.

“I think we had more people at the top of the events, and we had people winning events on the women’s side, which I don’t think happened last year,” Weber said.

The Maroons return to Myers-McLoraine’s deck Saturday when they host conference champion Grinnell and first-time opponents Lake Forest. While the men’s side should come away with wins against both visitors, the women are going to have a tougher time. Their times stack up nicely against the Foresters’, but Grinnell poses a bigger challenge with its deeper roster.

“It’s not something where we’re really worried about times as much,” Weber said. “We really just want to go out there and race and get as many points as we can because these two teams are pretty good.”