February 26, 2008

Rookies power women's swimming to best UAA finish to date

Heading to Rochester for the UAAs, it was no secret that women’s swimming would need the best out of its rookies for a strong showing. The class of 2011 didn’t disappoint.

Continuing to make this the best season in program history, the Maroons took home fifth at the league championships, improving on last winter’s sixth-place finish, the previous all-time high. During the meet, which ran from February 20 to February 23, a trio of first-years and second-year Cassie O’Neill gave Chicago all the edge it needed to meet its goal of taking the next step up in the UAA ranks.

“A lot of freshmen were really nervous because it was their first championship meet,” head coach Jason Weber said. “But the main reason we placed fifth is because of the freshmen and how well they did.”

Keeping the Maroons afloat against the four ranked squads at the tournament were first-years Sarah Wynn, Charlotte Richman, and NCAA-hopeful Ellie Elgamal. With those three leading the charge, Chicago bagged 852 points while title defender and third-ranked Emory soared to first with 1,951 points.

The Eagles have long been the kings of the UAA, claiming 17 banners in the league’s 20 years of competition. Their dominance has left powerhouses like 8th-ranked Wash U, 13th-ranked Carnegie Mellon, and 19th-ranked NYU scrambling to fill the rest of the top four. A mere 24 points separated the second-place Bears from the third-place Violets.

It’s not just that the conference has more than its share of sharks, either. All the teams are swimming faster each year, making the Maroons’ task of slowly closing the gap all the more challenging.

“Last year, times that would’ve placed top eight weren’t making that cut this year,” Weber said.

Despite coming up short of some of their best times posted this season, the young South Siders managed to crack the top eight in six events. Richman and Wynn both took sixth in their individual outings, with Richman clocking a 25.10 in the 50-yard freestyle and Wynn slapping the wall in 4:44.07 in the 400-yard IM.

“The freshmen have never been to a meet this long and this intense before.” Weber said. “I didn’t know if they would be able to hold up the entire team.”

At the forefront of the rookies was Elgamal, who took gold at the meet in the 100- and 200-yard butterfly, netting another pair of NCAA provisional qualifiers in the process. She had some trouble finishing and had to overcome fatigue as the four-day meet wore on, but pulled out first in the 200 with a 2:08.23.

In the 100, opponents gave Elgamal a much tighter race, with the first four finishing within a second of each other. She managed to grab first with a 58.05, edging out the silver effort of 58.20 from NYU first-year Chelsea Pfohl.

“I think it’s encouraging for her to know that she can win a UAA title when she’s not at her best,” Weber said.

Elgamal has to wait until Friday to hear if she will make the trip to Nationals, held March 13–15 in Oxford, OH. She posted her first provisional-qualifying time in the second meet of the season with a 58.34 in the 100 fly and has kept up the NCAA standard ever since.

“I’d be very, very surprised if she didn’t make it,” said Weber, who is planning with Elgamal for NCAAs.

Currently the San Diego native sits among the top 12 of provisional qualifiers and usually the best 18 get a bid.

O’Neill, who was the squad’s best NCAA prospect last season, was the only non-rookie to place. She took seventh in the 200-yard breaststroke (2:29.54) and fifth in a 100-yard breaststroke that saw the top four swimmers finish within a second of each other. NYU third-year Samantha Ashby won with a time of 1:07.21, while O’Neill checked in at 1:08.02.

Although they didn’t show up in the top eight, third-year Callie Brown and second-year Kathie Ang both chipped in some unexpected points for the Maroons. The two shaved time off their personal bests and also contributed in relays.

Getting performances like Ang’s and Brown’s will add to the strength of Chicago’s roster and start shaking up the UAA standings. Already coaches around the league are noticing the Maroons’ recent strides and offering congratulations to the coaching staff.

“We’re competing with the top teams now,” Weber said. “We see other very good teams during the season, but we don’t see teams with the depth of Carnegie, NYU, Wash U, or Emory.”