NAU swimmers add national ranking to first-ever WAC title

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                </div>  The announcement this week that the Northern Arizona University swimming & diving team was given a final end-of-season national ranking was somewhat anti-climatic to the women’s biggest achievement this […]<!-- AddThis Sharing Buttons below -->
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The announcement this week that the Northern Arizona University swimming & diving team was given a final end-of-season national ranking was somewhat anti-climatic to the women’s biggest achievement this year. Almost exactly one month ago, the Lumberjacks were in San Antonio, Texas, celebrating the school’s first-ever Western Athletic Conference championship.

And for nine seniors it was the culmination of four years of frustration, the result of chasing a conference title that was always just out of reach. For four of the past six years, NAU has had to settle for runner-up.

Last year, they were agonizingly close, coming within seven points of beating San Jose State for the WAC title. But this year, they left little doubt of their worthiness to claim the 2014 trophy, running away from the field to post a 743-642 victory over second-place Idaho.

The national ranking marks the third year in a row the program has finished in the top 25, showing consistency for a program that has taken its place on the national stage.  It took 939.56 points to slide into that top 25 spot this season in the CollegeSwimming.com Mid-Major Poll.

For the past 12 years, the Mid-Major rankings have offered an objective point system to compare non-BCS programs and those that, under NCAA rules,  provide fewer than one-half of the allowable scholarships.  The point system compares teams that do not benefit from large-scale football or basketball conferences and are the only objective ranking of swimming for NCAA Divisions I-III, NAIA, and NJCAA.

“To be in the top 25, it’s a big credit to our girls,” said head coach Andy Johns, who has been at the helm of the women’s program for the past 18 years.  “They’ve put in a lot of hard work this season and, for our upperclassmen, they’ve worked hard the entire time they’ve been here.”

The ‘Jacks came into the season with a deep roster that included 24 returning letterwinners, led by the nine seniors.  They lost just five letterwinners from last year’s squad that went 5-6 in duals.

“The seniors have been awesome all four years and they elevated our program, both in and out of the pool,” Johns explained.  “They’ve definitely left their mark on our program and I’m so excited that all of their hard work paid off in a championship in their senior year.”

At the WAC Championships, four days of intense competition, NAU swimmers swept the three medal positions in both the 200 breaststroke and the mile.  In the 200, four of the top eight spots went to a combination of seniors – Jordan Burnes and Stirling Smith – and freshmen Urte Kazakeviciute and Caitlin Baker.

The depth of this year’s squad showed up at the championships as a total of 20 athletes – 16 swimmers and four divers – scored points in at least one event.  Of the 20, 16 got into the top eight of the finals in at least one event.

Burnes picked up her first individual gold medal in the event and set a school record in the process, making the final touch in 2:13.35.

A good sign for the future: the freshman Kazakeviciute was the silver-medal winner, finishing right behind Burns in a time of 2:14.99.

In the mile, Kendall Brown, Caitlin Wright, and Emma Lowther took the top three spots, with Brown defending her title in the event with a dominating time of 16:33.27 and Lowther won silver in 16:40.64.  Wright brought the broom, clocking 16:42.87 for the sweep.

And for his efforts this year, Johns was named the WAC Coach of the Year, the second time he has picked up that honor. 

So what are the chances of a WAC title repeat next year?  Johns isn’t ruling it out.

“We’re losing 200 points from our seniors,” he admits, “but with our incoming freshmen, we’ll be good in different ways next year.”

(Photo: NAU Athletics)