January 23, 2007

Without vets, swimming treads water at Carthage

At the beginning of the season, swimming had a statement to make to the rest of the UAA: The cellar-dwelling days of seasons past were over. While the final score from Saturday’s dual meet didn’t reflect the dominance Chicago showed in the fall, the shorthanded Maroons continued to improve against the region’s best.

Taking on two CCIW powerhouses at the Carthage Triangular, the 22nd-ranked men raked in three first-place finishes and split the meet, edging 20th-ranked Wheaton 131–127 and falling 151–109 to their 21st-ranked hosts. First-year Cassie O’Neill claimed the only top finish for the women, who fell 151–111 to Carthage and were trounced 184–78 by 15th-ranked Wheaton.

While Saturday’s standings may be a notch below what the Maroons turned in before break, the fact that they made any waves at all at the Koenitzer Aquatic Center is a sign of the squads’ new depth and fresh talent. In the past Chicago has consistently been the odd team out at the meet, overshadowed by the high-caliber Carthage-Wheaton rivalry.

“Sometimes when I go to this meet, I don’t feel like we belong there,” head coach Jason Weber said. “We’re just sort of an afterthought. Last year, we didn’t really have anyone to compete with Wheaton or Carthage in every race.”

Both squads proved in the first half of the season that they are much improved from last year, but any edge that might have given them Saturday was cancelled out by the fact that the Maroons had to make the trip to Kenosha this year with huge holes in their rosters. All of the third-years were attending “Taking the Next Step,” forcing both sides to push people into off-events and leaving the men to compete without some of their strongest swimmers.

“Our junior class unfortunately is probably our best class, definitely on the men’s side,” Weber said. “On the women’s side they have some really strong swimmers, especially depth-wise.

“I think Wheaton, Carthage, and us are almost equal in terms of each event,” he said. “We just match up really well. I knew it would be a close meet. I actually didn’t think we would beat either of them with less than half our guy’s team there. I knew that if we could win some events, we’d be close, but I really didn’t think we had the depth to do it.”

Stepping up to help propel the men’s side past the Thunder with top finishes were second-years Shane Carlson and Alex Stabell and fourth-year James Viccaro.

Continuing to excel in whatever event he races in, Carlson took first in the 500-yard freestyle, clocking in at 4:45.59 to beat out Carthage second-year Bryan Pelka (4:45.61) by a hair. The veteran Viccaro had a similar close call with the Red Men but came in ahead of the competition in the 100-yard free, slapping the wall in 49.11 seconds and edging host second-year Bryce Davis’s time of 49.17. Posting a 52.92, Stabell took top honors in the 100-yard butterfly and just missed first in the 200, coming in after Pelka (1:59.58) at 2:00.75.

While the efforts by this trio weren’t enough to continue the unbeaten stretch in dual meets, the silencing of the Thunder marked a big step forward for the men’s squad.

“We’ve never beaten them since I’ve been here,” Weber said. “I’ve only been here three years, but from what some of the guys have been saying, we’ve never beaten Wheaton before.”

On the women’s side, losing third-year Ellie McNeil to “Taking the Next Step” grievously wounded the team in its distance events, ruining some chances to keep up with the Lady Reds.

“Our distance events are not very deep, and she’s definitely our best distance swimmer,” Weber said. “I think if we had our full team there, the girls’ meet would have been very close with Carthage.”

While it might not have been enough to keep the Maroons in competition with their hosts, O’Neill claimed the first spot in two events, continuing her run as the squad’s leading finisher. The rookie beat out Wheaton second-year Renee Shear (1.09:75) in the 100-yard breaststroke, clocking in at 1:09.67. O’Neill also bested Shear’s effort in the 200, pulling in ahead of the Annandale, VA native’s 2:30.58 with a time of 2:28.82.

This Saturday the Maroons will get in their last preparations for the UAA meet when they host DePauw, a squad that has given Chicago fits in recent years.

“This is an interesting time for us. We’re in taper time, where we just start resting, so we start coming down in intensity and yardage,” Weber said. “Some people start to feel out of whack; they’re not doing their normal training regiment. We could see some pretty fast swims, or we could see some people do just terrible.”