By ANDREW YOURELL
Wildcat freshman Jessica Harper notched at least one win in four of five dual meets prior to Saturday’s home meet against Rutgers. While the team dropped a tough 183-117 contest against their Big 10 opponent, the young phenom continued to shine, notching a pair of individual wins, a third place finish, and helping a relay to earn silver.
The first individual event of the meet was the 1,000-yard freestyle, a punishing test of both speed and endurance. Harper took the lead early, cruising to a 10:09.25 victory, 22.59 seconds in front of the nearest finisher, and this year’s top time in the event in the America East conference. She followed the effort with a win in the 100-yard butterfly, hitting the pannel in 56.99 seconds, a time that ranks her fourth in the conference. But when asked about her performance, she instead remarked on the team’s improvement over the course of the season.
“I think the team that competed today was a completely different team than the one that swam at the beginning of the season,” she said. Despite her efforts to deflect attention from herself, her performance did not go unnoticed, as she was named the America East Swimmer of the Week on Jan. 27. The honor is Harper’s third, as she also won consecutive awards for the weeks of Oct. 28 and Nov. 4. Additionally, the Corvias ECAC Swimmer of the Week award was also bestowed upon Harper on January 28th.
As noted by Harper, the team swam an impressive meet despite losing. Fellow freshman Liza Baykova blazed through the water in the 100-yard and 200-yard freestyle events, in 52.20 and 1:51.53, respectively. The Moscow-native is currently the America East leader in both events. She and Harper would team up with sophomore Sarah Broderick and junior Bettina Caspersen for the 200 freestyle relay, which was barely beaten by Rutgers, posting an impressive 1:36.86.
Katie Mann was the team’s other individual winner. The senior’s 1:04.31 time in the 100 breaststroke fell just short to Rutgers’ Greta Leberfinger and her 1:03.67. But Mann would earn her revenge later in the meet, taking home gold in the 200 individual medley with a 2:04.76. Seniors Nicole Anderson and Oneida Cooper joined Mann and Broderick in the 200 medley relay, the meet’s first event. Rutgers’ 1:45.72 time was about half a second ahead of the Wildcats, who took second in 1:46.24.
On the boards, senior standout Nikki Zahka tallied a 256.42 score on the 3-meter boards, earning bronze in the effort. On the 1-meter board, her 224.55 was not good enough to beat a talented trio of divers from Rutgers, and she settled for fourth place.
Despite the meet’s score, head coach Josh Willman was happy with the ladies’ performances, acknowledging that fast times at this stage of the year are more important than winning out-of-conference dual meets.
“They’re definitely moving in the right direction,” he said of his squad, noting the vast improvements since the team dropped its opening meet at Vermont.
Despite their record, the team currently holds the top time in a host of events, with Baykova, Harper, and Mann paving the way.
Before they worry about the America East Conference Championships, the Wildcats have the University of Maine Black Bears to contend with. UNH’s rival will ship into town for a Friday night meet, which kicks off at 5 p.m. and will also celebrate Senior Day. Then the ‘Cats have a few weeks to prep for the conference meet at WPI Feb. 12-15.