The Ashland University swimming team might not be able to walk on water, but the Eagles have proven that they do know how to levitate above much of the pack in NCAA Division II.
A year ago, the Ashland women finished seventh at the national meet in Canton, Ohio, and the AU men were 10th. Of the 12 swimmers who appeared at that meet, 10 are back this season. The season begins for AU this weekend when Findlay (Friday, Oct. 15), Wayne State (Saturday, Oct. 16) and Hillsdale (Oct. 16) visit Ashland.
"We're definitely starting over," replied AU head coach Paul Graham when asked if the momentum the Eagles garnered last year can carry over to this season. "Every team is different in its makeup and how it goes about things. We had a little taste of success last year. They want to be better, they don't want to sit on what they did last year."
Here's a look at the Eagles as they start the 2010-2011 season.
The Eagles bring back four of six national qualifiers from last season. Last spring, the 200 freestyle relay won the first relay championship in the history of the women's program. The seventh place finish ties the best finish ever for the women.
Sophomores Julie Widmann (Littleton, Colo./Heritage) and Rachael Ausdenmoore (Southlake, Texas/Carroll) were both members of that relay. Widmann earned seven All-America honors and was third in the 50 freestyle and fourth in the 100 backstroke. Ausdenmoore was a four-time All-America and was 14th in the 100 butterfly.
"They're just scratching the surface," said Graham. "They've worked so hard in the weight room. You look at Maura Anderson and Allison Morgan and see where they are now and where they were a year ago. You see how that translates into the pool and you see that happening with Rachael and Julie."
The two sophomores, along with Anderson (Lakewood, Ohio) and Morgan (Strongsville, Ohio), have also been aided by an underwater camera Graham and assistant Mike Shelby have used this year. That piece of equipment is used once or twice a week.
"Every day we work on technique," reported Graham. "We've been working on the little things that translate into faster times."
Anderson, a junior, was eighth in the 100 butterfly last spring and three relays that finished in the nation's Top 10. Graham believes she will be a leader on this year's team.
"She's starting to believe in herself," said Graham. "She realizes now she's an elite athlete in Division II swimming and diving."
Many of the same statements can be made about Morgan, a senior.
"Allison made some breakthroughs last year and it's going to be exciting to see what we do with the relays," Graham said.
Like the women, the men return a veteran nucleus.
"We're a year older and a year stronger," offered Graham. "We have an idea of what it takes to compete at the national meet. Just that four-day mental grind takes time to figure out."
Sophomore Cheyne Fisher (Durban, South Africa/Westville) should be a point producer again this season. He was second a year ago at the national meet in the 200 breaststroke and was fourth in the 100 breaststroke. Fisher should challenge for a national crown in that 200 breaststroke, but that won't be his only assignment.
"What's really exciting is how much his freestyle has developed," said Graham.
Another sophomore, Mauricio Uranga (Chihuahua, Mexico), will be a factor in up to four events. A year ago, Uranga earned four All-America citations (200 IM, 200 freestyle, 200 backstroke, 100 backstroke), something Graham admitted, "was totally unexpected." Uranga learned a lot as a rookie, including what's needed to endure a season that runs from October to March.
"Mauricio's gained 10 pounds of muscle since last season," Graham said.
Two other veterans Graham has high expectations for are senior Chewy Vogele (West Chester, Ohio/Lakota West) and sophomore Matt Cook. Vogele was on four All-America relays last season and Cook was on the 200 medley quartet that was the national runnerup. He was also on the 400 medley relay that finished ninth.
"They're both team captains," pointed out Graham. "They've done a great job of leading the guys and keeping them on task already."
Ashland had three divers last season and that number has doubled this year. The leader of that contingent is senior Lee Drugan (Ashland, Ohio). Drugan was 14th in the 3-meter diving competition at last spring's national meet.
"He can show the way," said Graham. "A year ago he had never competed before and became an All-American. He's excited about the upcoming year."
Graham, like most swimming coaches, knows how to divide the season into various parts with the goal of peaking in late February and early March. This year's national meet will be held Mar. 9-12, in San Antonio. One of the teams the Eagles face on this opening weekend, Wayne State, will be front and center on the NCAA Division II stage all year.
"I've talked about that with some of the guys," Graham said. "We've beaten them early, but they've gotten us at the conference meet and the NCAA meet. We want our depth to be there at the conference meet and to challenge for a top four finish at the NCAA meet."
Graham has spiced up the schedule with several key meets. The Eagles will swim at Eastern Michigan (Dec. 3-4) and take part in a meet at NCAA Division III power Kenyon that also includes Cincinnati and Oakland (Jan. 21-22). Wright State, a perennially strong program from the Horizon League, will swim at Ashland (Jan. 8). The GLIAC championships will be held in Jennison, Mich., Feb. 9-12.