By ANDREW YOURELL

STAFF WRITER

The Wildcats boarded the bus on Wednesday afternoon with a collective goal — to win the America East Swimming and Diving Championships for the third straight year. The four-day meet will be taking place this Thursday (Feb. 12) through Sunday (Feb. 15) at the WPI Sports & Recreation Center in Worcester, Massachusetts.

The women know it will be a tough meet to win, but they have confidence that they can pull it off, according to team captain Kathryn Violette. The confidence is not unfounded, as the team enters the meet with the top-seeded times in 10 of the meet’s 20 events.

“The women are fired up to race, which is awesome,” says Violette. “With the experience that coach has it’s hard not to have confidence in his taper.”

Head coach Josh Willman certainly has plenty of experience. The 2014-2015 season will be his 22nd as UNH’s head coach, and in that time he has garnered 13 America East Coach of the Year Awards and 4 ECAC Coach of the Year Awards, sweeping both awards after the Wildcats won in 2014.

The coaching staff is not alone in its decoration — seniors Oneida Cooper and Katie Mann are returning America East Champions in several events. Cooper won last year’s 200- and 500-yard freestyle events, and Mann won both the Individual Medley events and is also the UNH record holder in the 200-yard breaststroke.

The duo are joined at the top of the psych sheets by freshman phenoms Jess Harper and Liza Baykova, who have put together impressive rookie seasons thus far. Harper is the only name ahead of Cooper in the 200 and 500, and also has top times in the 100-yard backstroke and the 1650-yard free. Baykova holds narrow leads on both the 100- and 200-yard freestyles, and the sprinter is also amongst the best in the 50.

Other notables for the ‘Cats include senior Nikki Zahka, ranked 2nd on the 3m diving board, junior Bettina Caspersen, an who competes in the breaststroke and Individual Medley, sophomore Sarah Broderick, a freestyle sprinter, senior Nicole Anderson, last year’s runner-up in the 100-yard backstroke and freshman distance swimmer Bridget Miller.

“If there’s really one thing I have observed since freshman year, it’s when it’s go time, we perform,” Violette says. “When UNH swims at [the America East Championships], it’s not so much a question of if you’re going to swim fast, but [rather] how fast.”

With a core group of talented swimmers and a head coach who’s been here before, it’s certainly possible that this year’s Wildcats will swim fast enough to notch their third-straight conference win.

The America East Swimming and Diving Championships will kick of Thursday morning, with the winners being crowned Sunday night at WPI.