Illinois swim team splashes into ARC

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By Jessica Glade

For the first time in four years, the Illinois swimming and diving team is ready to hit their home waters and defend their turf for the season opener tonight against Nebraska. Led by a strong group of veteran swimmers the team is ready to take on the Cornhuskers at the Activities and Recreation Center (ARC) pool Friday at 3 p.m.

“We’re expecting it to be a close meet, an exciting meet,” said head coach Sue Novitsky.

However, the Illini know the meet will not be easily won. Last year marked the first meeting between the Illini and Nebraska, with the Illini falling 172-126 in Lincoln, Neb. It was a close match between the two teams, and nothing short of the same is expected of this year’s matchup.

“I think we have a little more fire in our team this year, especially being our first home meet,” said sophomore swimmer Sara Stoneburg. “I really think we’re gonna bring it this year.”

The Illini realize that hosting their first meet in four years is going to give them a bit of an edge, though all the time spent on the road last season may give them an extra advantage.

“I think that traveling helped bring us together, and we did really well when we traveled,” said junior Morgan Gilman. “But now it’s ‘let’s see what we can do at home,’ and we’re all really excited.”

One of the swimmers to keep an eye on is Marissa Clapp, one of the four seniors who plans to improve on an impressive season that she had last year. Clapp had 15 first-place finishes last season, including two NCAA “B” time standards in the 200 breast and 400 IM. The senior also earned the most finals appearances and points at the 2007-08 Big Ten Championships and holds nine performances that rank in the top 10 in school history.

Individual promise aside, Novitsky is very pleased with how the team is looking.

“I’m really happy how strong we’ve been getting in the weight room and how hard they’ve been working with their dry land and their practices.”

Stoneburg agrees.

“Practices lately have been awesome. People have had times that we weren’t even expecting.”

Thanks to the depth and experience of this year’s team, the Illini should be dominant this season in the butterfly, breaststroke and individual medley (IM) events. Leading the butterfly is senior Ali Keehn, followed by junior Jen Ivarson, who was the top finisher for the Illini at the Big Ten Championships. Her time of 2:03.11 was the fourth-fastest in school history. Clapp will be a force in the breaststroke, along with junior Amy Johnson and sophomores Lauren Frendreis and Corey Kasten. Clapp is also expected to be a leader in the IM, along with senior and team captain Katie Theissen.

Though the Illini are serious about winning Friday’s meet, they are also serious about letting fans know that swimming and diving meets are returning to Champaign. Prior to the meet, Splash Bash ’08 will kick off the opening of the season at 2 p.m. in ARC room MP6. The events will include bags, Wii games, music and prizes. There will also be free food and a special appearance from the Illinois Women’s Basketball team, who will be meeting with fans and signing autographs.

“We’re hoping it will be a great event,” said Novitsky, the ninth year head coach. “The weather is supposed to be great, hopefully a lot of people will be at our Splash Bash and then come down and watch the meet and cheer the Illini on.”