Illinois swimming and diving head to Big Ten Championships

Trevor Greene The Daily Illini Illinois CeCe Marizu competes in the 200 yard backstroke during the meet in the ARC pool against Illinois State University on Saturday, January 24th.Illinois beat Illinois state 219 to 81.

Trevor Greene The Daily Illini Illinois’ CeCe Marizu competes in the 200 yard backstroke during the meet in the ARC pool against Illinois State University on Saturday, January 24th.Illinois beat Illinois state 219 to 81.

By Jessica Glade

This is it. It’s Big Ten Championships time. This is the moment the Illinois swimming and diving team has been training for all season.

Starting Wednesday and running through Saturday, the Illini will compete against some of the best talent in the country for a chance to be crowned 2009 Big Ten Champions.

“I think Big Tens are a totally different experience (than dual meets) because you’ve got prelims finals and you have a totally different mentality because it’s what I’ve been working for all year and its finally the time,” said junior CeCe Marizu.

But the road to a conference title will be anything but smooth. The Illini enter among the underdogs and will compete against an outstanding level of talent.

Six teams in the Big Ten are ranked: No. 10 Minnesota, No. 13 Indiana, No. 14 Wisconsin, No. 15 Penn State, No. 23 Northwestern and No. 25 Michigan. Minnesota is undefeated in dual meets, including wins over six other Big Ten schools. By comparison, Illinois enters the Championships after finishing 0-3 at the Big Ten Quad Duals in late January and has a total Big Ten record of 1-4.

“Obviously the competition level is outstanding,” head coach Sue Novitsky said. “But we can’t worry about them. We’re going to keep the focus on our team and just go out there and step up. As of right now, it can go either way. A couple of teams are way out there, but there’s a group where it’s going to be close.”

Along with impressive teams, there are also seriously talented individuals participating in the Championships.

“I think a lot of the people on our team are gonna make a difference at Big Tens,” said Marizu.

Indiana’s Kate Zubkova is undefeated in both the 100-yard and 200-yard backstroke events and is the reigning Big Ten champion in both events. She also competed in both the 2004 and 2008 Olympic Games, representing Ukraine. The Hoosiers also boast senior Christina Loukas, who was just named Big Ten Diver of the Week for the third consecutive week and the fifth time in the season. If that wasn’t impressive enough, Loukas also placed ninth in the 3-meter dive at the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing this past summer.

Minnesota brings some talent in the form of sophomore sensation Jillian Tyler, who has automatically qualified for the NCAA Championships in both the 100-yard and 200-yard breaststroke. Her 100-yard time is the best in the nation, and her 200-yard is second best, trailing only U.S. Olympian Rebecca Soni.

While Illinois is going to have a tough couple of days of competition, this is the moment they have been training for all season.

“I think everyone’s on track for where they should be. I’m really excited to see what everyone can do,” freshman Kristen Manais said.

The Illini have planned their training season around this one event and are hoping that the excitement of the event will give them a boost.

“It’s going to be a combination (of team effort and individual performances),” Novitsky said. “Individual results lead to team results. You have some good individual results and the team picks up momentum, people get excited and can’t wait for their turn. Everyone just has to go in there eager to swim their best and contribute towards our team goals.”