Illini swimming and diving look to end season on high note at Big Tens

The Illinois swimming and diving team is preparing for the Big Ten Championships on Wednesday in Iowa City, Iowa.

It will be Illinois’ largest meet of the year, with all 12 Big Ten teams competing. The competition features six teams in the NCAA top-25 rankings and a Purdue squad that was dropped from the rankings just this week.

“It’s an opportunity for us to really peak and go for our fastest times of the year,” Illinois head coach Sue Novitsky said.

The Illini’s last competition was Feb. 3 and 4 in Minneapolis for the Minnesota Challenge, which saw 17 personal bests from members of the team. Strong performances from sophomores Anne Goering and Emily Wilkinson led Illinois, as well as a second-place finish by the 400-meter freestyle relay. In November, Illinois placed well in its largest tournament to date, the Northwestern Invitational, placing second out of an eight-team field that featured Northwestern and Nebraska.

“We’ve had some breakthroughs here and there, and I think we’re looking toward putting it all together as a team like we saw with the girls at the Minnesota Challenge,” Novitsky said.

Novitsky wants to keep things routine, and the goal for this week has been for her swimmers to set their own times and not be concerned with the times put up by other teams. For the younger swimmers, the meet provides an opportunity to claim spots on the team for next year; for seniors, the Big Ten Championships allows one last chance to leave their mark on the program.

The conference finale has not been kind to Illinois in the past, with the program finishing no better than fifth since 1987. Since Novitsky was hired as head coach 12 years ago, the team’s best finish was eighth in 2001; the Illini have placed last each of the past four years. Although the team’s standing has been stagnant, Novitsky continues to reiterate that it is the times that matter most, and not necessarily the place.

“We’ve been swimming faster each and every year,” Novitsky said. “And that’s our main goal, to keep swimming faster and give ourselves those opportunities to compete and to challenge for the scoring positions and improve our place at the end of the meet.”

Illinois has posted conference wins over Michigan State and Nebraska this season, with both victories coming on the road. The Illini snuck past the Spartans by 10 points on Nov. 4 and beat Nebraska by just four points Jan. 21. The Illini also bested Nebraska in the Northwestern Invitational (Nov. 18-20) — the Cornhuskers took home a fourth-place finish. The Orange and Blue have taken their lumps in Big Ten competition as well. Illinois lost to Northwestern and Iowa individually, and then placed behind Wisconsin, Minnesota and Purdue at the Big Ten Quad Duals in late January.