Oct. 21, 2011
EDITOR'S NOTE: This is the second in an ongoing series on UND.com, spotlighting the 2011-12 Notre Dame winter sports season with both written and video previews. Today, we take a look at the Fighting Irish women's swimming & diving team, which has long been a powerhouse in the BIG EAST Conference and now looks to take the next step and become a major player on the national stage.
Notre Dame women's swimming and diving head coach Brian Barnes has big expectations for his 2011-12 squad that far exceed winning the program's 15th BIG EAST title in 16 seasons.
"We feel that winning the BIG EAST meet is a byproduct of higher goals," said Barnes. "If we have a group of girls that are all striving to make the NCAAs, the BIG EAST could take care of itself. Because once a couple of people start winning, it becomes contagious and everyone steps up their performance. When the BIG EAST comes around, we will be focused on winning it, but that isn't our ultimate goal."
Looking at some of the talent returning and the newcomers that are beginning their first year of action, it `s easy to see why Barnes has set higher goals for this year's team.
Despite losing All-American Samantha Maxwell, the Irish return five student-athletes that won 20 BIG EAST citations in 2011. These include senior co-captain Amy Prestinario, junior co-captain Lauren Scott, junior diver Jenny Chiang, junior Kim Holden and sophomore Kelly Ryan. Also returning are 10 other student-athletes for Notre Dame that gained valuable experience last season and 10 freshmen that look to make their mark on the program.
"It's an exciting time to be a part of Notre Dame women's swimming and diving," said Barnes. "But right now we are only living on potential. It's just a matter of finding that potential, and if we do, we should have a pretty good team."
Leading the way in the freestyle stroke are three all-BIG EAST performers in Prestinario, Ryan and L. Scott. Ryan won the 100 and 200 free titles last season at the BIG EAST Championships, while Prestinario finished second in the 50 free and third in the 100 free. L. Scott, in addition to earning a pair of BIG EAST citations in the relay events, also swam the 100 free at the conference meet in a season-best time.
Several talented freshmen look to make an instant splash including Hannah Bowen and Suzanne Bessire for the shorter free events, and Bessire, Bridget Casey, Erin Foley and Courtney Whyte for the longer events. Bowen was a 10-time champion in Minnesota, while Casey was named to the USA Swimming National Junior Team over the summer in the 200 fly.
The backstroke is more than covered as the Irish boast two of the top student-athletes in the BIG EAST in Holden and Ryan. Holden has won the 100 and 200 back at the conference championships in each of her first two seasons at Notre Dame and owns the BIG EAST meet record in both events. The Mount Kisco, N.Y., native advanced to the NCAA Championships in the two events, placing 25th in the 100 back. Meanwhile, Ryan placed second in the 200 back behind Holden at the BIG EAST meet.
"Kelly is capable of doing so much for this team," said Barnes. "She had a remarkable BIG EAST meet last season, and we are really expecting her to have a break out year this season. She is knocking on the door of advancing to the NCAA Championships."
Also looking to add depth in the backstroke is sophomore Sarah Dotzel, who finished in top eight in the 100 back at the BIG EAST Championships.
Holden paces the Irish in the butterfly as well, as she has earned all-BIG EAST honors in the 100 fly in each of her first two seasons with the program. L. Scott (100 fly) and Dotzel (200 fly) also swam in fly events at the conference meet.
The freshmen class boasts a talented group of three that could all help in the fly. Leading the charge is Casey, who has national experience in the 200 fly. Also looking to contribute will be Melissa Scott and Whyte.
Looking to help fill the shoes of former All-American Samantha Maxwell will be senior Gwen Blythe and a pair of underclassmen with BIG EAST experience. Blythe and sophomores Lauren Stauder and Christen McDonough both competed in the breaststroke at the BIG EAST Championships, with Stuader placing fourth in the 100 breast, earning a NCAA B-cut qualifying time.
Notre Dame has a cupboard full of individual medley swimmers, as five student-athletes competed in the 200 or 400 at last season's BIG EAST Championships. Senior Emily Barton competed in the finals of the 200 and 400 IM, setting season-best marks in both, while Blythe, Mikelle Masciantonio, McDonough, L. Scott and Stauder all swam season bests in the 200 IM at the conference meet.
Also looking to contribute in the IM are freshmen Emma Reaney and M. Scott.
One of the highlights of the team should be the relay events, as the 400 free and medley relay teams won BIG EAST crowns a year ago, while the 200 free and medley relay teams earned runner-up finishes. Members from those teams that return include Holden (200 and 400 medley) Ryan (400 free and medley, 200 free), Prestinario (200 free and medley, 400 free) and L. Scott (200 and 400 free).
"We are poised for great relays," said Barnes. "We lost some key members of last year's relay teams, but if we can find some replacements, there is a shot of breaking school records and advancing to the NCAA Championships."
Returning for the Irish in the diving events is junior standout Jenny Chiang, who is a two-time BIG EAST champion in the 3-meter dive.
"Jenny is obviously very good on the boards at the BIG EAST level," said Barnes. "We are hoping this season she can make a push at qualifying for the NCAAs."
"We think that along with Chiang, Russell and Casareto could help provide a nice trio at the BIG EAST Championships."
A look at the 2011-12 schedule shows a tough group of opponents with a bit of a regional flair. Dual matches include Pittsburgh, Purdue, Louisville, Michigan, Northwestern, Michigan State and Ball State. The Irish also host perennial national power Auburn in an early-season meet on Oct. 21.
Other key regular season dates include The Ohio State Invitational from Dec. 2-4 and the annual Shamrock Invitational from Jan. 27-28. The Irish make their usual trip to Hawaii for winter break training in early January, and begin the BIG EAST Championships on Feb. 10, with the diving events. The swimming events get underway on Feb. 15. Both BIG EAST meets will be held in Pittsburgh, Pa. The NCAA National Championships are slated for March 15-17, with Auburn playing host this season.