By Andrew Yourell, Sports Editor
For many sports, scouting and recruiting is a tricky science, one so imprecise that well-respected scouts, such as Steve Belichick, become one of the team’s most important assets. But Wildcats’ associate head coach Jarrod Zwirko, who also serves as recruiting coordinator for the swim team, has an easier task when he evaluates incoming talent.
“It’s a time-based sport, so you don’t need to necessarily go see someone’s passing ability, or the defense that they’re playing against. If someone can swim a certain time in the 50 free, then they swim a certain time in the 50 free, and we have access to that through the USA Swimming database,” Zwirko said. “So that makes it a little easier, and not make you feel like you have to go to Russia, or you have to go to Canada, or you have to go to California.”
Despite that, there is an interesting trend on this year’s swimming and diving roster. Nine of the 18 members of the team live in New England. Three come from other states within the United States—California, New York and Wisconsin—and one comes from the capital. But the remaining five swimmers don’t even call the United States home.
Seniors Katie Mann and Megan Suffel hail from Canada, and senior captain Oneida Cooper came to Durham from Johannesburg, South Africa. Bettina Caspersen, the team’s lone junior, calls Lyngby, Denmark home. The youngest international swimmer is one of the team’s freshman superstars, Liza Baykova, who took home America East titles in the 100-yard freestyle and the 200-yard freestyle, and broke Denise Leckenby’s 1996 team record in the 200.
“For the internationals, we’ll send some emails, set up a Skype, pretty much sitting in the office with them having a face-to-face conversation that you would have with any other recruit,” Zwirko said of his and head coach Josh Willman’s recruiting method with the foreign students.
“They can’t really make that official visit, to fly overseas and come here for the weekend and absorb it, so it’s a kind of a mock official visit to be able to sit down and talk with us,” he continued.
One of the rare exceptions was Caspersen, an individual medley and breaststroke specialist, who was able to visit UNH from Denmark before committing.
“I wasn’t done with my swimming career,” Caspersen said, explaining that, in Denmark, university education and athletics are not integrated. For Caspersen, there was a distinct choice to be made: choose an education, choose swimming, or come to an American school.
“Do you want the East Coast, the West Coast, do you want to go north, do you want to go south. What kind of contacts do I have already, old coaches that could hint me somewhere where they’ve had some experience with other swimmers going abroad,” she said of the variables when looking at schools on another continent. “And then limiting that list down, and then sending out a bunch of emails and seeing who responds back and if they’re interested in recruiting you.”
Caspersen was able to visit a handful of schools on the East Coast, but only after her parents verified the legitimacy of each school.
“My parents didn’t, well, they just wanted to know it was a legit school and it was actually existing,” she laughed. “It’s kind of absurd, thinking back to, but in a way it was just a lot. Going overseas, going 3,000 miles away, they wanted to know it was the right place.”
On her list of schools was a small, well-regarded business school, UNH.
“I really like this program because it’s a small women’s team, that’s really close together,” Caspersen said. For her and other international students, the close-knit relationship of the team made being thousands of miles from home much easier.
Even for the local prospective swimmers, however, the team plays a major role in the recruitment process. Freshman Jess Harper recalled her official visits, where she met the women who could become her teammates, and how that affected her choice.
“I narrowed it down to eight schools that I was talking to, and you’re only allowed five official visits,” the Massachusetts native said. “So I ended up looking at, I wanted a really big school, a smaller school, a middle school, and then a reach school, and my mom works at UMass Amherst, so I took a trip to UMass Amherst.”
Her other schools included Rutgers, George Washington in Washington, D.C., James Madison University and UNH. Part of her process included taking unofficial visits—the same day trip to campus that thousands of other prospective students take, including tours around campus—to see what the schools were like without the swimming aspect included.
“It was really nice, because when you went on an unofficial visit, if you didn’t like the campus, or didn’t like the life around campus or anything, then you just took it right off your list,” Harper said.
UNH was not always Harper’s top choice. Harper was originally intent upon going to James Madison, saying she was “in love” with the school throughout her entire recruiting process. After her official visit, she was sold—only her mother’s insistence kept her from calling off the process.
“Before my trip here, I didn’t even want to come. I was like ‘Mom, I’m going to JMU, like, you already know, this is a waste, I don’t want to go,’” she said. “And I get here, and I absolutely fell in love with it. Like, the team, the dynamic, how they interact with each other…I watched a meet, and [the team] did their line-up dance, and I was like ‘I want to go here.’”
UNH has a small team in comparison to other schools, which comes from only chasing high-quality recruits in an effort to perform at a high level. The smaller team makes chemistry a major factor in recruitment.
The results of Willman and Zwirko’s recruiting process are hard to deny, however. Despite a roster of 18, UNH managed a second place finish at this year’s America East Conference Championships, trailing the winner, the University of Maryland, Baltimore-Court, by a mere 14 points, 791-777. UMBC’s roster boasts 30 swimmers and divers.
The ‘Cats will graduate six seniors in May, but with a strong coaching staff and an excellent tradition, the future is sure to be bright—and fast—for the swimming and diving team moving forward.