CHAMPAIGN, Ill. – After posting the first back-to-back winning seasons since the 2009-10 and 2010-11 campaigns, the Fighting Illini swimming and diving team looks to build off their recent success as the 2015-16 season is underway.
“We have added a talented incoming class that will help us continue to fill some weaker spots in out line-ups and relays,” head coach Sue Novitsky said. “We are pretty balanced through all the classes for the first time in a while. We have a lot of versatile athletes that can jump into different spots and that will help in our regular season meets. The team works hard and continues to improve and set high standards from the freshman through the seniors. That kind of continuity with the team atmosphere makes it fun to work hard and challenge yourself.”
The Illini graduated eight athletes from the 2014-15 team, but will return 21 experienced swimmers and divers from last year’s squad. The Illini unit will miss Alison Meng, who leaves Illinois as the record holder of four individual school records. However, Amelia Schilling and Lori Lynn headline a talented group of seniors that includes Jessica Clifford, Jennifer Coady, Stephanie Hein, Sloane McDermott, Isabella Schamber, Hollie Smith, Sarah Sykstus and Kirsten Zborek.
Although the junior class is small, consisting of only four athletes, it is a very talented and accomplished bunch. Gabbie Stecker holds school records in the 500 freestyle (4:46.99) and 200 butterfly (2:00.21). Amelia Schilling also put her name in the Illini record books by posting the fifth-best 200 freestyle (1:49.10), as well as the fourth-best 500 freestyle (4:51.15) and third best 1650 freestyle (16:47.63). Schilling finished with four top-10 freestyle performances last year. Alison DeAngelis and Olivia Kassouni will also return for their third season in Orange and Blue.
Last season’s freshman class will look to build off their early success. Ashley Aegerter, who placed 10th in the 200 breaststroke (2:17.96) at the Big Ten Championships and Nelly Casas, ninth in the 500 freestyle (4:54.15) at the Missouri Invite, headline the sophomore class.
Illinois will add seven new athletes to the squad with a promising freshman class. Freshmen Rebecca Eckblad, Sam Gowdy, Madeline Kuhn, Autumn Ledgin, Aby Olson, Gabriele Serniute and Megan Vuong will look to make an immediate impact for the Illini.
“On paper, (the freshmen) are ranked very high in multiple events on our depth chart. Many of the incoming freshmen will be able to compete for relay spots,” Novitsky said.
The Illini will push for a third consecutive winning season for the first time since the three-year span from 1998 to 2000.
With the graduation Alison Meng, the Illini will look to Kirsten Zborek to lead in the sprint freestyle. Zborek posted a team-best (:23.64) in the 50 freestyle at the Big Ten Championships.
The Illini will once again look to juniors Stecker and Schilling to lead the way in middle-distance freestyle. Both swimmers followed up their impressive freshman seasons with record-breaking sophomore campaigns. Stecker broke the 500 freestyle (4:46.99) school record at the Missouri Invite, while Schilling posted the fifth-best 200 freestyle time (1:49.10) in school history at the Big Ten Championships. The Illini will also look for contributions from sophomore Casas.
With the departure of senior Kayla Dlugopolski, the Illini will look to Stecker and Schilling again in the distance freestyle. Schilling posted team best times in both the 1000 freestyle, as well as the 1650 freestyle.
Backstroke and Breaststroke
Without Meng, the Illini will look to senior McDermott and sophomore Samantha Stratford to lead in backstroke and breaststroke competition. After posting the school’s sixth-best time in the 200 backstroke as a sophomore, McDermott improved her time at the Big Ten Championships last season. Seniors Lynn and Coady also made their ways onto multiple all-time fastest individual lists last season. Lynn put together the second-fastest 50 backstroke (:25.93) and 200 butterfly (2:00.46) on the year. Lynn also ranks third in the 100 butterfly (:54.84). Coady swam the sixth-best 200 breaststroke (2:17.09) at the Missouri Invitational and posted the seventh-fastest 200 backstroke (1:04.05) at the Big Ten Championships.
Seniors Lynn and Sykstus, as well as junior Stecker headline butterfly competition for the Illini. Stecker held a team-best time (2:00.21) in the 200 butterfly at the Missouri Invite. The team will also look to Meyers and Casas to make up for the absence of Meng.
Individual Medley and Relays
With the seniors that graduated last year, many athletes will be competing for relay spots. The Illini will count on Stratford, Hein, Coady, Aegerter, Lynn, as well as freshman Serniute to contribute immediately. However, others will be considered for spots as well, including Audrey Rodawig, Vuong, Meyers and Sykstus.
After losing senior Erika Murphy to graduation, the Illini will look to NCAA Zone Diving Qualifiers, Kassouni and Corniuk to lead in diving competition. Corniuk had the best performance in the platform diving competition, finishing 10th with a score of 452.80 points, just two places out of qualifying for the NCAA Championships. Freshman Kuhn will also look to make an immediate impact as an Illini diver.
The team will open the regular season by hosting Eastern Illinois, Western Illinois and Olivet Nazarene. Following two conference match-ups against Michigan State and Northwestern, the Illini will be on the road for the remainder of their schedule, which includes matchups with Georgia, Iowa State and Arkansas. The Big Ten Championships will be held from February 17-20 in Ann Arbor, Michigan.
For the October 16th home meet against EIU, WIU and Olivet Nazarene, the Illini will be giving away shirts, water bottles and leis for a Hawaiian themed night at the ARC Pool. Illinois will also honor its nine senior team members between the first and second sessions of the meet.
The annual Splash Bash will be held on October 30th against Northwestern. There will be pizza for the first 200 Illini fans, as well as free candy to celebrate Halloween.
Swimming news courtesy of Illinois Swimming & Diving.