ASHLAND, Ohio – When the Ashland University swimming and diving teams shake loose for the NCAA Championships at the Palo Alto Natatorium in San Antonio, they will be looking to climb to the highest steps on the podium in their histories.
The AU women have never been higher than seventh at the national meet and the men's highest position is fourth. The women's squad enters the meet ranked second in the country (behind only Drury) and the men are ranked seventh nationally.
"Ideally, we'd love to be on the podium and earn our best national finish ever on both sides," said AU head coach Paul Graham. "We've got a real shot to do that."
With the Eagles having three of the top four medley relays in the country, they should be able to earn major points in those events. Relay events count for double-points against individual events.
The men's 200 medley relay team is the top seed in the national meet with a top time of 1:29.69. the 400 medley relay squad is the national leader with a time of 3:17.75. Those times are both GLIAC records, set last month at the GLIAC meet in Jenison, Mich.
The women's 200 medley relay clocked the fastest time in the country this season, but is the second seed at the national meet, because Wayne State compiled individual swims into the relay for the top seed. The AU women swam the 200 medley relay in 1:43.50.
"It's huge because it's double the points, unlike track where teams get the same points for relays and individuals," noted Graham. "That's been one of our big points of emphasis in terms of getting the team better, is improving our relays because we know how much that helps out.
"One of our things we wanted to accomplish this year was score in the top eight in every single relay," he added.
The women's squad also ranks second in the country in the 200 freestyle relay and 400 medley relay. They are ninth in the 800 freestyle relay. AU's men are ranked seventh in the nation in the 800 freestyle relay.
"Those are going to be the toughest ones, but we feel we have a good shot at it," said Graham.
In total the Eagles are sending 19 athletes to the national meet, nine on the women's side and 10 on the men's side. That is the most athletes the Eagles have ever sent to the national meet, even in the first year of the NCAA capping the number of athletes allowed to compete at nationals. On the men's side 160 athletes will compete, and on the women's side, 205 athletes will be in the pool.
"To have the highest number we've ever had when the meet is capped, we couldn't be happier," Graham said. "One of the things we're always doing is striving to get better and better. We've been able to increase the number of athletes we're taking to nationals the last three years, and it's progressively getting higher and higher."
Several individuals have a shot at medaling at nationals. On the men's side, sophomore Cheyne Fisher (Durban, South Africa/Westville) is the national leader in the 100 breaststroke with a time of 54.45 seconds. He is also second in the 200 breaststroke at 1:59.29. Both of those times set GLIAC records at the conference meet last month.
"One of the great things about the conference meet is that his main nemesis the last couple years has been Joaquin Abascal Gallegos from Wayne State and he was able to beat Joaquin in two main events there," said Graham. "We're hoping he'll be able to do the same thing [at the national meet]. They've had many epic battles in the breaststroke. To get over the hump is really important and he was excited."
Sophomore Tyler Remmel (Hubertus, Wisc./Hartford Union) also hopes to make a splash in the 100 breaststroke, ranking sixth in the country, just over a second behind Fisher. Freshman Alex Sheil (Sydney, Australia/Trinity) is sixth nationally in the 500 freestyle at 4:29.42. Senior Matt Cook (Olmsted Falls, Ohio) is 10th in the country in the 100 backstroke with a time of 49.65 seconds.
On the women's side, the Eagles hold eight top 10 positions, led by sophomore Julie Widmann (Littleton, Colo./Heritage), who has three of those spots. She is second nationally in the 50 freestyle with a time of 23.12 seconds, which set the GLIAC record at the conference meet. Widmann is fourth in the 100 backstroke (55.54 seconds) and sixth in the 100 freestyle (51.04 seconds). She will have the opportunity to acquire the Eagles buckets of points.
Junior Maura Anderson (Lakewood, Ohio) is fifth nationally in the 100 butterfly with a time of 55.56 seconds. She is also eighth in the 100 breaststroke at 1:04.20.
Freshman Gabriela Verdugo Arzaluz (Chihuahua, Mexico/Institute Tecnologico y de Estudious Superiores de) ranks ninth in two events, the 100 freestyle (51.42 seconds) and 200 freestyle (1:51.57). Also, senior Allison Morgan (Strongsville, Ohio) will swim in the 100 breaststroke, ranking eighth in the country with a time of 100 butterfly.
Of the 19 qualifiers the Eagles are sending, only six are newcomers to the meet, which means that most of the butterflies should be short-lived.
"Our focus has been there and the excitement to do better is there and that's all you can ask for," said Graham. "This is the meet we've been gearing for all year with the top athletes. If we swim faster than we have all year, obviously we'll be in great shape."
The Eagles start competition on Wednesday (March 9) and the meet will continue through Saturday (March 13).