Last season ended in heartbreak for the women of the UNH swimming and diving team. After back-to-back America East championship crowns in 2013 and 2014, the Wildcats came up just short, placing second to the University of Maryland-Baltimore County by a score of 791-777.
“I’m chasing some personal time-standard goals,” Jess Harper said, adding that she hopes to make similar time drops to what she experienced at last season’s championship meet.
Harper has been a jack-of-all-trades for the Wildcats this season. The sophomore is the team’s record holder in the 500-yard freestyle, and is the defending champion in that event and the 1,650-yard freestyle events in the conference. Despite being a distance specialist and holding the conferences top times in both events, however, Harper may be asked to branch out for the team’s sake.
A runner-up in the 100-yard butterfly last season, Harper is currently the top-ranked swimmer in both the 100- and 200-yard butterfly events and the 200-yard backstroke.
Harper is joined atop the conference leaderboards by classmate Liza Baykova. Baykova is a sprint freestyler with the top times in the 50-yard, 100-yard and 200-yard freestyle events. In addition to defending her 100 and 200 titles from last season, the Russian native is close on the heels of former All-American Denise Leckenby’s team records in the 50 free and the 100 free, after breaking Leckenby’s 200-yard freestyle record at this meet a year ago.
Last year, the issue for the Wildcats was depth—with 14 swimmers and four divers, UNH’s squad was three athletes short of the other programs. The problem looks to be the same this season, after UNH graduated six seniors last May, including three-time NCAA qualifier Katie Mann.
Associate head coach and recruiting coordinator Jarrod Zwirko worked hard last year to recruit a large freshman class, and UNH’s hopes for returning to conference glory will depend largely on how they perform under head coach Josh Willman’s taper.
“I think the freshmen are doing really well with the taper,” Linnea Lemerise said.
The rookie is one of the team’s only New Hampshire natives and admitted that her class has felt the pressure to perform, though she thinks the team is feeling good in the water as they head into the weekend.
An aspect that will be in the Wildcats’ favor this year is a young diving crew. Last season, the ‘Cats had three freshmen divers, one of whom had never competed as a diver before college. But an extra year has lent the team valuable experience, and sophomore Hailee Miller is currently ranked third on both the 1-meter and 3-meter boards in the conference. On 1-meter, she’s joined by freshman Erin Cullather and sophomore Savanna Desmarais, who are ranked fourth and fifth.
With fewer competitors, the Wildcats enter this meet as an underdog for the first time in years, and while the athletes are focused on controlling what they can control, they won’t back down from the larger teams.
“Being a small team and scoring high points is a huge statement,” Harper said. “I think people know what we’re capable of with or without the extra bodies.”
If the rest of the conference doesn’t, Harper and the Wildcats will soon have an opportunity to show them. The America East Swimming and Diving Championships will begin tonight at 5 p.m. at Worcester Polytechnic Institute and wrap up on Sunday, Feb. 14.