Illinois swimming and diving off to a hot start

By Drake Pena

Expectations were tempered for the Illinois swimming and diving team this season after losing arguably the best swimmer in the school’s history, Alison Mengss.

Head coach Sue Novitskyss acknowledged the fact that it would take time and that replacing Meng would take a true team effort from her current seniors and underclassman.

“You don’t just replace Alison Meng right away,” Novitsky said. “It’s a process along with the other ones as well. We lost a lot of leadership and point potential with a lot of our graduating seniors, and so it’s going to be a process to see who’s going to step up and challenge themselves. We’ll be adjusting as we go through it.”

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    However, the Illini made no excuses to begin their season, and are off to a 7-2 start, their best start in the last five years.

    Novitsky chose a schedule that would challenge her team, and she is proud of the progress they have made this season.

    “Our coaching staff is really excited about the upcoming season and feels that this schedule will really test our team,” Novitsky said. “We can’t wait to pick up where we left off last year in terms of making so many revisions to the record book.”

    One of Novitsky’s key building blocks has been sophomore Samantha Stratford. Stratford has been dominant this season, setting several pool and school records.

    Stratford went on a torrid streak early in the season, winning 10 straight individual events. ss

    She followed up by being the Illini’s most consistent and reliable performer.

    “I just keep practicing really hard, focusing on small details during practice, and taking it one race at a time,” Stratford said. “We all work really hard, and we all push each other during practice. It’s not one person setting the example, it’s everyone feeding off of each other.”

    The season has also brought with it a new batch of freshmen and their first taste of collegiate competition. The swimming and diving roster consists of seven freshmen, each eager to show that they belong and are capable of handling Big Ten competition.

    Freshman Madeline Kuhn, fresh off of her first collegiate diving final and eighth place finish at the Hawkeye invitational, loves being an athlete and the pressure that comes along with

    “It’s really nerve-racking but also really exciting,” Kuhn said. “It is so much work, but it’s so worth it already. Being able to say you’re a Division I athlete is just so cool.”

    The team will be all over the country for its final month of the season, traveling from Georgia and Arkansas all the way to California.

    The Illini have been road warriors this season, having only one of their meets at their home pool this season.

    With the emergence of Stratford and versatile freshman adapting to their new roles, the swimming and diving team is poised for a strong finish to their already stellar season.

    A shot at the Big Ten crown is looking more and more like a possibility.

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