By ANDREW YOURELL
WORCESTER, Mass. — Senior captain Kathryn Violette entered the Worcester Polytechnic Institute’s pool in the 1650-yard freestyle and spent the first half of the meet swapping the lead with University of Maryland, Baltimore County’s Shona Lambert. But as the race progressed, Lambert began to pull away, and Violette finished second in her preliminary heat, good for 14th overall. She immediately hopped out of the water and ran to her teammates for her inhaler, and, on very little rest, raced in the 200-yard breaststroke finals shortly after.
Much like their captain’s gutsy performance, the Wildcats gave this weekend’s America East Conference Championships all they had, but fell just short of repeating as champions for the third straight year. At the end of the four-day meet, the Wildcats 777 points trailed UMBC’s 791. Rounding out the meet were Vermont (662), Binghamton (470.5), and Maine (433.5).
While the ‘Cats fell short, they did not go down without a fight, winning 11 of the meet’s 20 events. Senior Katie Mann, sophomore Sarah Broderick, and freshmen Liza Baykova and Jess Harper each recorded wins in individual events, and the women’s 400 medley, 200 freestyle, 400 freestyle, and 800 free relays all recorded the meet’s top times.
Mann shone in her final conference meet, winning her fourth straight America East Championship in the 400-yard individual medley in 4:13.51. She would add a 1:59.96 gold in the 200-yard butterfly on the meet’s final day, and a second place time of 1:59.48 in the 200 IM.
“We all had such high expectations for every person on this team and everyone left everything they had in the pool,” Mann said.
Almost lost amongst her titles were the two awards that Mann was awarded at the end of the meet. She won the Elite 18 Award, given for academic excellence, and she also won the David Alexander Coaches Award for the highest career point total at the America East Conference Meet. In four years, she compiled 213 individual points.
“I’m very proud to be a Wildcat and kind of overwhelmed that that was my last conference meet,” she added. “I’m honored to have received both of those awards tonight and am very grateful for the teammates that have encouraged me day in and day out to do the best that I can.”
Sophomore Sarah Broderick proved a vital cog in the ‘Cats’ relays, but also shone in her individual performances, taking home gold, silver, and bronze in the 100 backstroke, 100 free, and 50 free, respectively.
Baykova placed just ahead of Broderick in the 50-freestyle, taking second in 23.18, right behind meet winner and conference record holder Caitlin Kelly of UVM. She scorched through the water in the 200-yard freestyle in 1:47.48, shattering a school record originally set in 1998, as well as the conference and meet records.
Baykova was not finished, however, turning in a 50.18 in the 100-yard freestyle, her second first-place finish of the meet. Her individual point total of 57 earned her America East Rookie of the Year honors at the meet’s end.
Harper looked to show off her versatility in the meet. She broke a school record in the 500 freestyle in 4:50.32, took second in the 100-yard butterfly in 56.25, swam the butterfly legs of both medley relays, and notched her second individual win in the 1650-yard freestyle in 16:42.81.
“The only thing I was focused on was helping my team out in any way I could,” said Harper, deflecting attention from her own accomplishments. “On the podium I was simply thankful to be part of such a hardworking and dedicated team.”
Relays, which count for twice as many points as individual events, were key events for the Wildcats. They took home first place in the 800 freestyle relay in 7:20.32, setting a new WPI pool record. Baykova and Harper led off with sub-1:50s, before Mann and Cooper anchored.
The 200 free relay won to end the second day of the meet, as junior Bettina Caspersen joined Baykova, Broderick, and Cooper. At the end of the third day, Broderick, Mann, Harper, and Baykova solidly defeated UMBC’s second place effort, logging a 3:44.42 in the 400 medley relay.
The meet’s last event was the 400 freestyle relay. UMBC had already locked the meet up—the only way that UNH could have won was if UMBC disqualified in the event. Nonetheless, Baykova, Harper, Mann, and Broderick turned in an impressive effort of 3:22.55, setting a new conference, meet, and WPI pool record in the process.
Several other UNH swimmers had strong swims as well. Caspersen, Anderson, and Cooper all made it to the top three in at least one event, and freshman Bridget Miller placed second, third, and third in the mile, 500 free, and 400IM. Head coach Josh Willman lauded the distance swimmer as the overachiever of the meet.
On the boards, Nikki Zahka made finals on both one and three meter, finishing sixth and fifth, respectively. In the one meter event, she was joined in the finals by Savanna Desmarais and Hailee Miller, who were seventh and eighth.
Baykova, Broderick, Mann, and Harper will compete at the end of February in the ECAC Championships.