After recording the most wins in a regular season since the 1999-2000 season, the Fighting Illini swimming and diving team will look to build on last season’s impressive 8-6-1 record.
“We just need to keep working on our details and control what we can control,” head coach Sue Novitsky said. “We’re looking to continue having a winning dual meet record and to protect our home pool come January. We want to keep improving and keep growing as athletes and as a team as a whole.”
The Illini graduated six athletes from 2013-14, but will return 21 experienced swimmers and divers from last year’s squad. Led by Alison Meng, the Illini record holder in the 50 and 100 backstroke, the senior class is filled with seasoned swimmers ready to step up for the Orange and Blue. Hailey Booth, Kayla Dlugopolski, Emily Fung, Sabrinne Gibson, Megan Marchuk, Callan McDermott and Erika Murphy round out the senior class. Meng and Marchuk together hold seven spots on Illinois’ all-time fastest individuals list.
“You’re always going to graduate some and you always have to fill their spots,” Novitsky said. “I think Alison Meng is still going to be a force to contend with this season, as well as Megan Marchuk.”
With over half the team consisting of upperclassmen, leadership will be the key to a successful season. The junior class leads by example, with swimmers Lori Lynn and Sarah Sykstus posting the teams’ season best times in the IM events last year. Lynn recorded the fastest 200 IM of the season, which placed her at 7th on Illinois’ all-time fastest individuals list. Not to be outdone, Sykstus became the third-fastest Illini all-time in the 200 fly and posted the Illini’s fastest 400 IM of the season. Jessica Clifford, Jennifer Coady, Stephanie Hein, Sloane McDermott, Isabella Schamber and Kristen Zborek complete the experienced junior class.
Last year’s small freshmen class made big waves in their debut season and will look to continue to do so in 2014-15. Gabbie Stecker became the fastest Illini of all-time in the 200 fly while cracking the Illini all-time top 10 in the 200 free (10th), 500 free (2nd), 1000 free (6th) and 1650 free (9th). Amelia Schilling also broke into the top 10 in the 200 free (6th), 500 free (5th) and 1650 free (7th). The two combined to claim 13 event victories over the course of the season. Alison DeAngelis and Olivia Kassouni will also return for their second season in Orange and Blue.
The Illini will add eight new athletes to the squad with a promising freshmen class that is ready to make an immediate impact. Freshmen Ashley Aegerter, Gabrielle Bethke, Nelly Casas, Raquel Corniuk, Adelaide Curry, Kaitlyn Joyce, Sascha Meyers and Samantha Stratford will all look to bring their prowess to the collegiate level
“We have our freshmen coming in that are pretty talented and they’ll get their opportunity to show what they fully can do,” Novitsky said.
The Illini will face strong competition this year as their strength of schedule intensifies from last season. However, the Illini hope to have back-to-back winning seasons for the first time since the 1998-99 and 1999-2000 seasons.
“We’ve upped our strength of schedule, so we definitely have to keep focus for each meet,” Novitsky said. “We’re going to be able to put up a pretty competitive schedule overall and a pretty competitive meet lineup for whoever we’re facing.”
It will be a transition year for the Illini in the sprint freestyle events as graduated swimmers Courtney Pope and Jessica Holz have left big shoes to fill. Seniors Meng and Marchuk will lead the Illini this season in the sprint freestyle. Last season, Meng led the Illini in the 100 free (50.81), improving her personal best time in the event. Meng currently holds the sixth-fastest time in the all-time individuals list in the event. Promising freshman Sam Stratford is also set to contribute in the sprint events.
The Illini will look to sophomores Gabbie Stecker and Amelia Schilling to lead the way in the middle-distance freestyle. The young swimmers made quite the impact last year as both broke into the top 10 all-time individuals list in both the 200 and 500 free in just their first season with the Illini. The two rank tenth and sixth in the 200 free and second and fifth in the 500 free, respectfully. Marchuk will also look to contribute middle-distance freestyle events.
The Illini will look to Stecker and Schilling again in the distance freestyle. The two combined to set all of the teams’ top 10 fastest times in the 1000 free last season and five of the top 10 fastest times in the 1650 free. Senior Kayla Dlugopolski will also look to contribute in the 1650 free after setting three of the Illini’s top times last season.
Backstroke and Breaststroke
Meng and junior Sloane McDermott will lead the Illini in the backstroke. Meng returns after breaking her own school records in both the 50 and 100 backstroke last season. Meng also swam nine of the season’s 10 fastest times in the 100 backstroke for the Illini. McDermott will look to improve on her success last year after becoming the sixth-fastest Illini to swim the 200 back with a time of 2:01.24. Hollie Smith, Jennifer Coady, Stephanie Hein, Andrea DeAngelis and Isabella Schamber will compete for the Illini in the breaststroke. Smith enters her junior season on a positive note after claiming the sixth spot on the Illini’s all-time fastest individuals list in the 100 breaststroke. Junior Isabella Schamber is poised to have a breakout year in the 100 breaststroke after claiming three of the Illini’s top 10 times of the season. Newcomer Ashley Aegerter will also look to contribute in the breaststroke during her debut season with the Orange and Blue.
The Illini boast a strong group of swimmers in the butterfly, which includes seniors Alison Meng and Hailey Booth, juniors Lori Lynn and Sarah Sykstus and sophomore Gabbie Stecker. Meng is the current Illini record holder in the 50 butterfly and last season improved to second on the Illinois all-time fastest individuals list in the 100 butterfly with a time of 54.69. Stecker looks to follow up an impressive first season after setting the school record in the 200 butterfly with her finish of 2:00.50 at the Big Ten Championships. Sykstus also climbed Illinois’ all-time fastest individual list in the 200 butterfly last season, finishing the season in third overall with a time of 2:01.94. Newcomer Nelly Casas will look to establish herself in the butterfly during her first year at the collegiate level.
Individual Medley and Relays
The Illini will also rely on Lynn and Sykstus in the individual medleys. Last season, Lynn improved to seventh fastest on Illinois’ all-time fastest individuals list in the 200 IM. Several swimmers are returning for the Illini in the relays as well. Meng, Schamber, Lynn and Marchuk all return after breaking the school record in the 200 medley relay last season. Last season the Illini broke a total of three school relay records in the 800 freestyle, 200 medley and 400 medley relays, while also posting five times that rank in the top 10 in Illinois’ all-time fastest list in the 200 freestyle, 400 freestyle, 800 freestyle, 200 medley and 400 medley relays.
The Illini return three NCAA Zone C Diving Championship qualifiers in Emily Fung, Erika Murphy and Olivia Kassouni. With all three divers returning to action this year, the Illini will look to continue their success this season. Last season Olivia Kassouni scored a 176.90 in platform diving, moving her to 3rd on the Illini’s all-time best performances list. Joining those three on the boards are junior Jessica Clifford and newcomer Raquel Corniuk.
College Swimming News courtesy of the University of Illinois Swimming and Diving.