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FreestyleU: UNH finished second at America East Championships behind strong performances in each of the freestyle events

Last season, the Wildcats scored 777 points and won 11 of the meet’s 20 events, but were outdone by the superior depth of the talented University of Maryland, Baltimore County squad, and finished as runner’s up.

This season, despite some truly dominating performances, the story was the same. UNH finished second to the Retrievers by a score of 885.5-824.5, followed by Vermont, Maine and Binghamton. Depth again proved to be the team’s Achilles heel, as the ‘Cats ultimately won 10 of the 20 events, including every single individual freestyle event.

“I think that everyone, especially the freshmen, stepped up and did a great job,” head coach Josh Willman said.

The Wildcats were led by their star sophomore duo, Liza Baykova and Jess Harper. Baykova won all three of the sprint freestyle events, while Harper cleaned up the distance freestyles with new team and conference records in the 500-yard and 1,650-yard freestyle.

“I think the whole team swam really well,” associate head coach Jarrod Zwirko, who also trains primarily with the distance team, said. “Day in and day out that’s our goal, is to be as fast as we can be here and to be able to compete for those top spots.”

Baykova and Harper teamed up for several relays, including the conference record-setting 800-yard freestyle relay on day one. The two were joined by freshmen Brittany Moffat and Brittany Driscoll, and the quartet all went under 1 minute, 50.48 seconds to set the new record, 7:16.14.

Baykova’s powerful stroke was too much for competitors to overcome, and she recorded times of 23.44 seconds and 1:47.68 in the 50 and 200-yard freestyle events. But in a stunning swim, the sophomore broke the program’s only All-American Denise Leckenby’s 1998 record by .01 seconds, clocking in at 49.81 seconds.

“Honestly I didn’t even think of the record,” Baykova said, adding that her goal was just to go under 50 seconds after notching a 49.60 split in the 400-medley relay the night before. She did admit that she was happy to break a time that was once an NCAA Top-10 time.

Harper, one of the conference’s most versatile swimmers, set conference records of 4:48.29 and 16:33.54 in the freestyles. She also won the 100-yard butterfly, slamming the panel ahead of her closest opponents by a mere tenth of a second in 55.85 seconds.

“All the distance swimmers went above and beyond in our training all year,” Harper said. “I’m so proud of everyone on the team for stepping up this weekend.”

While Harper and Baykova were favorites in each of their respective events, one of the big question marks surrounding the Wildcats was how the freshmen class would perform. The Wildcats graduated six seniors after last season, including the talented Katie Mann, and the rookies were needed to step up to keep the meet competitive.

If there were any nerves early on, they did not show for the freshman. Moffat and Driscoll finished second and third in the 500-yard freestyle behind Harper, and Moffat was second in the 200 and 1,650 free as well.

Driscoll, however, was not content with bronze. In the 400-yard individual medley, the freshman crushed her personal record to win the event with a 4:21.47. On day four, she followed up the win with a fourth-place finish in the 200-yard butterfly and was vital in relays all weekend, eventually winning the Outstanding Rookie of the Meet award.

“The freshmen did amazing this year. We had a lot of pressure to perform but all of us were able to step up,” Driscoll said. “Now that it’s over, I feel relieved that I made it through my first season and [I’m] hungry to do even better next season.”

Driscoll was not the only freshman to win an event. After finishing second place in the 100-yard backstroke and seventh in the 200-yard individual medley, New Hampshire native Linnea Lemerise torched the competition with a 2:00.28 in the 200-yard backstroke.

The Retrievers proved to have too many swimmers to overcome though. Despite UNH winning 10 events to UMBC’s eight, the Retrivers seemingly had a swimmer or two for each UNH swimmer in the final heat of any event. UMBC was also paced by the America East Swimmer of the Meet, Emily Escobedo. The junior only got better as the weekend went on, helping her team win the 200-yard medley relay and then crushing the conference records in the 200-yard individual medley, 100-yard breaststroke and 200-yard breaststroke, where her 2:06.21 winning time was good for the meet’s only NCAA A-cut time.

“She’s phenomenal,” Willman said after Escobedo’s 200-yard breaststroke time was announced as the top time in the NCAA all season. “She’s a really tough competitor who works her butt off. Her race today was phenomenal…we’re happy for her, she’s a good kid.”

While the Wildcats couldn’t overcome UMBC, they did have a number of finalists in each event, including senior Bettina Caspersen, juniors Sarah Broderick and Sarah Olver, sophomores Hailee Miller and Savanna Desmarais and freshmen Erin Cullather, Holly Driscoll, Vivi-El Sibay and Maddie Murphy. The young nucleus of the team gives Willman hope for the future.

“Obviously we’re working on the depth thing and we have some incoming freshmen that are going to help us out with that,” he said. “It’s nice that we’re really kind of just replenishing rather than replacing.”

The Wildcats will send a number of swimmers to the Eastern Collegiate Athletic Conference’s championship meet. The meet will be hosted at the United States Naval Academy from Feb. 26 to Feb. 28.

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