By Andrew Yourell, Contributing Writer
Three words emblazoned on the banners overlooking UNH’s Swasey Pool should tell every young recruit what head coach Josh Willman expects of his swimmers: excellence, pride and tradition. In his 22nd year at the helm of the swimming and diving team, Willman has established UNH as a premiere program, but coming into Saturday afternoon’s home opener, the 2014 squad was still searching for its first quality meet.
“We’ve spent the last couple weeks trying to get back on track,” Willman said.
The team dropped two meets, at Vermont and at Northeastern, before returning to Durham for its first home meet, against Central Connecticut State.
“I told them we needed underclassmen to step up and take some responsibility for scoring points,” Willman said.
The young Wildcats responded with enthusiasm, recording a 168-124 win over Dartmouth that included recording wins in 14 of 16 events. Freshman Jessica Harper and Liza Baykova joined seniors Katie Mann and Oneida Cooper to win the 200-medley relay.
Harper would also record wins in the 100 backstroke (57.68), 200 IM (2:08.75), and the 500 free (4:55.32), which she won by an entire length of the pool. Baykova also had a pair of wins in the 100 free (52.08) and 200 free (1:52.70) and was the opening leg of the winning 200 free relay. Sophomore Sarah Broderick won the 50 free with a scorching time of 24.00, in addition to two 2nd place finishes in the 100 and 200 freestyle, and a win in the 200 free relay.
Other young standouts answering Willman’s call were freshman Bridget Miller — who took home first in the 1,000 free and 2nd in the 500 — and sophomore Emily Giambastini, a silver medalist in the 200 backstroke, 200 IM and a third-place finisher in the 100 backstroke.
UNH’s veteran swimmers were not to be outdone, however. Junior Bettina Caspersen was narrowly out-touched in the 100 breaststroke, taking second place by two-tenths of a second. She later won the 200 breaststroke and was a member of the winning free relay team.
Senior captain Oneida Cooper took first in the 100 butterfly in 58.21 and nabbed silver in the 200 butterfly, and fellow senior Megan Suffel swam well, with third place finishes in the 50 free and 100 fly, before anchoring the winning 200 free relay to cheers of “Mama Suffs” from her teammates. Lauded senior Katie Mann cruised to a victory in the 200 butterfly with a time of 2:03.70, but more impressive was her win in the 200 backstroke in 2:04.06, which she celebrated by climbing out of the pool, hopping up on the lane 5 block, and immediately competing in the 200 breaststroke, where she took second to Casperson by two-tenths of a second.
Nikki Zahka flipped and twisted her way to a convincing first-place finish in the 3-meter diving event and used high scores on a double somersault in the 1-meter program to nab second place.
“Today was a good day,” Willman concluded, when the scores were tallied and the ladies celebrated their first win of the season. “I knew we were getting back on track when Connecticut’s coach [Bill Ball] told me this isn’t the same team that lost to Vermont.”
The Wildcats look to ride this week’s momentum into next week’s contest, a home meet against the URI Rams. The meet kicks off at 2 p.m. on Saturday at the Swasey Pool.