Illinois swimming and diving keep an optimistic outlook

By Daniel Collins

While spending the entirety of the first half of the season on the road, the Illinois swimming and diving team will return home to start the second half with a progressing level of optimism.

The Illini, who currently have a meet record of 3-3, opened the season with a 160-140 loss to Northwestern and followed that with landslide victories over Illinois State and Southern Illinois. From that point on, the pattern of winning big or losing by a slim margin remained consistent as Illinois lost to Kansas by three-hundredths of second, blew out outmatched Tabor College and fell to Notre Dame by 14 points.

Head coach Sue Novitsky wants the team to remain confident about its blowout victories and view its close losses as learning experiences for the remainder of the year.

“We’re going to have some real tough dual meets coming up in January,” said Novitsky. “That’s another opportunity for us to learn how to compete when we’re tired and under close circumstances when the pressure is on.”

Novitsky said the team has been battling a lack of energy, an issue that tends to arise around this time every year. However, Novitsky is hoping that competing at home will help to combat the constant fatigue. The Illini’s first meet of the second half of the season is at home on Jan. 16.

“We were on the road the entire fall, that can be pretty challenging,” Novitsky said. “We’ve had some adversity with some of our trips, but they’ve handled it (well).”

The team’s biggest achievement on the road this fall was at its last competition, the Missouri Invitational. During the three-day event, the Illini set 68 personal records — including five school records — and finished fourth out of nine teams.

Two of the swimmers that led the way at Missouri were senior Alison Meng and sophomore Gabbie Stecker.

“I think the invitational was the best I’ve seen in my four years,” said Meng. “(We brought) a positive attitude to each session.”

Besides the consistency that Meng and Stecker have provided during the first half of the season, the Illini have also received many solid performances from freshman Samantha Stratford.

Stratford has four relay and seven individual wins on the year and was the first Illini ever to win the honor of Big Ten Freshman of the Week for her efforts against Notre Dame on Nov. 14.

“It was a great accomplishment,” said Stratford. “It’s great to be the first Illini to ever win the award.”

On the diving end, Illinois has improved since a year ago. As a whole, the team currently has three event wins.

Diving coach Chris Waters said the improvement can be linked with friendly competition amongst the diving squad.

“They’re more comfortable with their dives and a little more comfortable with me,” said Waters. “We now have a lot of people at the same ability level, and they’re scoring about the same, so they’re all pushing each other.”

While aiming to keep their momentum going into the second half of the year, the Illini have received four letters of intent in the class of 2015 from swimmers Sam Gowdy, Gabriele Serniute, Megan Vuong and diver Madeline Kuhn.

Novitsky said she hopes that the class can come in and compete heavily for starts next fall.

“We’re losing eight seniors overall, so we have some big shoes to fill,” Novitsky said. “We know that they’re probably not going to do that right away, but they definitely have that potential.”

The Illini will have a month and a half off from competition before they return to the pool for four consecutive meets at home against Iowa State, Iowa, Nebraska and Michigan State, respectively.

Daniel can be reached at [email protected] and on Twitter @collins_d2.