By Andrew Yourell, Staff Writer
Streamers intertwined the railings above the Swasey Pool deck, colorful posters adorned the wall by the starting blocks, and balloons were tied down all around the facility. The scene was set for a party, and the Wildcats didn’t disappoint, as they romped to a 175-99 victory over the rival UMaine Black Bears.
Before the meet started, the seniors went through a short celebration, receiving flowers and the adoration of the fans, parents, and teammates gathered to honor their four years of commitment to the team. Then, it was all business with the ‘Cats bringing home gold in the first three event, the 200-yard medley relay, the 200-yard freestyle, and the 100-yard backstroke.
“I’m so proud of how the team swam tonight,” said senior captain Kathryn Violette. “I think we backed up our performances last weekend really, really well. Kind of showed America East that we’re nota one-hit wonder…not a two-hit wonder,” she joked, referencing the team’s position as two-time defending conference champions.
The times were certainly impressive in the meet, as the Wildcats cruised to victory in 14 of the meet’s 15 events. Freshman freestyler Liza Baykova has flirted with the pool record all year, and came close again on Friday, as her 200-yard freestyle time of 1:51.11 was less than half a second from the mark. She also logged the fastest times in the 50-yard freestyle (24.09 seconds) and the 100-yard freestyle (51.77 seconds). She swam a leg of the winning 400-yard freestyle relay as well.
Her fellow freshman and current roommate, Jess Harper scorched the water as well, winning the 200-yard backstroke in 2:05.88 and the 500-yard freestyle in 4:55.38, as well as a silver medal in the 200-yard butterfly. She was the butterfly leg of the opening medley relay and anchored the 400-yard freestyle relay.
Sophomore Sarah Broderick hit the panel first in the 100-yard backstroke in 58.45 seconds and Bettina Caspersen won the 200-yard IM to round out the first-place finishes by the team’s non-seniors. All of the team’s underclassmen scored points in at least one event during the meet.
The meet was the senior’s last chance to shine at home, and they made the best of the opportunity. Katie Mann, a two-time NCAA qualifier, won three events. She held off Harper in the 200-yard butterfly, improving upon her own America East leading time with a 2:02.74 finish. She earned gold in the 200-yard breaststroke and the 100-yard butterfly.
Oneida Cooper, Nicole Anderson, and Megan Suffel garnered individual second-place finishes for the seniors, and Violette scored to ensure that every member of the senior class—and the team at large, scored at the meet. Cooper, Anderson, and Mann were also involved in the 200-yard medley relay that opened the meet with a win, joined by Broderick. Broderick and Cooper were the other members of the 400-yard freestyle relay.
On the boards, senior Nikki Zahka led freshmen Hailee Miller and Savanna Desmarais to their strongest team performance of the year. Zahka and Miller went 1-2 on both 1 and 3 meter, with Desmarais taking fourth and fifth, respectively. A week ago, against a phenomenal Rutgers team, Zahka’s personal record of 256.42 on 3 meter went largely unnoticed. But the senior, who walked on as a sophomore, ended her career at Swasey by smashing last week’s mark, recording a 271.6.
“I was aiming for 260 tonight on 3 meter…so that was incredibly great, I was really happy with a 271,” she said after the meet, a broad smile on her face. “Couldn’t have ended on a better note.”
She did add that the meet was a bittersweet farewell to the pool she’s called home her entire career.
“It felt really good. I think emotionally it hasn’t really caught up with me yet,” Violette said. She couldn’t help but laugh when asked her favorite memory at the pool. “Probably this year. When I came in to practice in a floral suit and a white cap, and got called a lap swimmer…in front of the entire team,” Violette said.
The team will have two weeks off before hitting the water at the WPI Sports and Recreation Center in Worcester, Mass for the America East Conference Championships. The four-day meet will run from February 12-15, and the ‘Cats are chasing their third straight conference title.