Men's swimmers gun for first NCAA title
The UA men's swimming and diving team tomorrow will begin the final push for its first national title at the NCAA Championships in Minneapolis.
Arizona enters the three-day meet ranked fourth in the nation, behind top-ranked Texas, No. 2 Auburn and No. 3 Stanford. Five of the top nine teams in the country are from the Pacific 10 Conference.
The Wildcat men are sending 16 swimmers to the championships, and they are the only team in the nation to return all of their point scorers from a year before.
"It is amazing that we have so many swimmers competing," senior Matt Allen said. "When I was a freshman, we only had seven. With so many swimmers, it makes the competition a lot harder. Now the favorite, Texas, is looking over their shoulder at us."
A total of 260 of the nation's top swimmers will be competing for national recognition at the three-day meet, which is held at the University of Minnesota's Dorthy L. Sheppard Pool.
The men's team will try to feed off the women's team, which nearly pulled off a dramatic upset of top-ranked Georgia at last week's NCAA Championships. The women finished second, 18 points behind the Bulldogs.
"The guys see the success of the girls and they to want to be successful," UA head coach Frank Busch said. "Also, the girls and guys practice everyday with each other, and they have competitiveness between them, and the guys want to always do as good or better than the girls."
The coach and players both agree that there is a lot of competitiveness among all of the swimmers.
"Every year, the girls do better than the men," Allen said. " One of our goals each year is to do better than the girls."
Arizona's success this week could hinge on team balance and the relay teams, senior Coley Stickels said.
"We need everyone to swim fast as a group," Stickels said. "Relays need to be in the top three. Also, bubble and consolation finishers need to step up and get as many points as possible."
The UA men should get a major boost from their two South African stars - senior Ryk Neethling and sophomore Roland Schoeman.
Both have grabbed the attention of David Marsh, head coach of defending champion Auburn.
"Schoeman and Neethling had a great summer, and they could possibly win every free-style event. They are just two incredible swimmers," Marsh said.
Besides Neethling and Schoeman, the Wildcats are led by Allen, an 11-time All-American, and co-captain Rob Henikman, who has received All-America honors five times.
Also, Arizona has a chance to gain valuable points in diving, as junior Arno Bergstrom and sophomore Ruben Vaca both qualified for the meet.
"Diving has a chance to play a huge role," junior Jay Schryver said. "We have never had a diving team that could make such a difference. Any points are helpful, and diving points may be the difference."
Marsh said with all of Arizona's talent, the Wildcats have as good a chance as any team to win the team title.
"Arizona is a terrific team," Marsh said. "The strength of their team is their balance. They have two great swimmers in Neethling and Schoeman. Matt Allen is also an excellent swimmer. They have nine or 10 thoroughbreds that are competing for titles, and the rest are role players. They need these role players to take them to the next level."
Although Arizona's highest finish at the NCAAs is fourth (1993), the team is approaching the meet as if it's there to win.
"Our team talks of this meet like it is a heavyweight fight," Schryver said. "We need to make punches when we can, and we need to keep swinging."