By ANDREW YOURELL
It was a packed house in UNH’s Swasey Pool on Saturday, as friends and parents swarmed in to watch the Wildcats open their 2015 season against the University of Vermont Wildcats.
For many, it was their first meet in blue and white, as eight Wildcat athletes made their debuts. The fans weren’t disappointed, as UNH hopped out to an early lead, and never looked back, winning the meet by a score of 179-121.
“We recruited them to basically do what they did today,” associate head coach and recruiting coordinator Jarrod Zwirko said. “It’s nice that they’re hard workers, and it paid off today.”
Head coach Josh Willman and Zwirko had their work cut out for them after last season. The Wildcats were the second place team in the America East conference last season, but graduated six seniors, including three-time NCAA qualifier Katie Mann, and several America East finalists. The coaches had to look to fill some big shoes, and the early returns are promising.
“I think they did awesome. I think they came together well as a class…it’s a good addition to our team,” Jess Harper said. Harper, a sophomore, is one of last year’s stars, and picked up where she left off, winning all three events that she swam on Saturday.
Harper, along with the team’s lone senior Bettina Caspersen, junior Sarah Broderick and sophomore classmate Liza Baykova started the meet off with a blistering fast time in the 200-yard medley relay. Harper swam the butterfly leg, and later in the meet won both the 100-yard and 200-yard butterfly, with times of 56.34 and 2:03.12. But, as one of the ‘Cats most versatile swimmers, she was also entered in the 200-yard backstroke, which she won in 2:03.30.
“Last season it took us a while to get started,” she said, referring in part to last year’s opener, which UNH dropped at UVM, 157-143. The Wildcats didn’t make the same mistakes this year.
Harper was joined by classmate Baykova, as well as Caspersen, Broderick and freshmen Brittany Moffat and Brittany Driscoll, who all won at least one individual event for the Wildcats.
Baykova, last year’s America East Rookie of the Year, blazed through the water in the 50-yard and 200-yard freestyle events, in times of 24.01 seconds and 1:53.86. She holds the team record in the 200-yard freestyle after breaking Denise Leckenby’s 18-year old mark last season with a 1:47.48 effort of her own. This year, she’s gunning for Leckenby’s other sprint records, the only team records that date back past 2000.
Moffat won the meet’s first individual event, the 1,000-yard freestyle, with a time of 10:37.26, barely outpacing sophomore teammate Bridget Miller. Moffat also swam in the 500-yard freestyle, again with Miller, and with Drsicoll. Moffat’s 5:09.70 was good for second place in the event.
Broderick, one of the team’s co-captains, showed some versatility by winning the 100-yard freestyle and 100-yard backstroke. Her times were impressive: 52.76 and 58.89 seconds. She was last year’s backstroke champion in the conference meet, and, like she did last season, she’s proven an invaluable cog in the relays. She swam the opening leg of the medley relay and anchored the 400-yard freestyle relay, which broke a Swasey Pool record with a 3:30.64.
Driscoll joined Broderick, along with Baykova and Caspersen, in the record-breaking relay, taking no time to make her mark on the Swasey pool’s record board. But she also won the 500-yard freestyle with a 5:06.67.
The team’s other freshman include Brittany’s twin sister Holly, Maddie Murphy, Brittany Moffat, diver Erin Cullather, Linnea Lemerise and Vivi El-Sibay. The freshman combined for 49 points in the individual events.
Cullather highlighted a revamped diving corps, led by first-year coach Lindsay Close. Cullather took second on the 3-meter board and third on the 1-meter board, swapping places with sophomore teammate Hailee Miller. Both divers had good meets, as did sophomore Savanna Desmarais, but, perhaps most impressive was sophomore Sarah Haggerty. Haggerty, a converted gymnast, had never dived before this season, and Saturday was her first meet. Her list had a low degree-of-difficulty rating, but Haggerty nailed each of her dives on both boards, finishing in fifth on the 3-meter board.
“Lindsay Close has done an awesome job with them in her first few weeks of being on the job,” Zwirko said. “Really, kudos to her, but I really think that just goes to show the toughness of some of these [divers].”
While many on the team celebrated their first meet at UNH, the team’s lone senior, Caspersen, noted her numbered days as a UNH athlete.
“It’s funny, being the last-first meet,” she said. “But I’m just really excited, enjoying swimming.”
Caspersen made the most of her final season-opening meet, grabbing gold the 200-yard breaststroke in 2:21.63. She placed second in the 100-yard breaststroke and swam the breaststoke in the medley relay. The senior co-captain was also a member of the free relay group that broke the pool record.
“It’s pretty awesome to do that and then realize it was a pool record, and to do it this early in the season,” Caspersen said. “I think it just really sets the tone.”
The Wildcats have another chance to show off their young talent next weekend. The Wildcats host the Northeastern Huskies on Saturday, Oct. 24, at 12 p.m.
Young Wildcats make a splash
By ANDREW YOURELL