Heading into his first Big 12 Championships, West Virginia swimming and diving coach Vic Riggs has kept his cards close all season and will begin to put them on the table this evening at the Lee and Joe Jamail Texas Swimming Center in Austin, Texas.
While there are less teams in the Big 12 than the Big East, that does not mean the competition gets any easier. The Mountaineers will go up against perennial powerhouse Texas, while also looking to get redemption on TCU after the Horned Frogs swept WVU at the WVU Natatorium in January.
“You have two teams, nothing against anyone else in the conference, the Texas men and Texas women programs are so far ahead of everyone in the conference that if you step up and race those individuals and race them well, they’re going to help us,” coach Vic Riggs explains.
For a number of Mountaineers, the facility is one that they are already used to after competing in Austin at the U.S. Short Course Nationals in December.
“With it being at one of the nicer facilities in the nation it is an advantage to us,” Riggs says. “When we took our kids it was for us to get the top end of our program that feel. Most of them were awestruck and I think that will be something that will work towards our advantage.”
Riggs also sees advantages in the setup of the meet that switches around the order of the relays from past years in the Big East and gives teams the opportunity to rest key components.
“The 400 medley relay is on the first night and the 200 free relay is on the second night. That’s going to give the 100 stroke people an opportunity to swim there 100s before their individual swims,” Riggs says. “That will give us an idea of what we need to do, if anything, to make adjustments. Our 50 freestylers also won’t have to do three 50 frees on the same day, so that will definitely help.”
On the women’s side, Riggs is looking for the senior leadership to step up and lead them to top finishes and eventually qualify multiple individuals for the NCAA Championships next month.
Four-time Honorable Mention All-American Rachael Burnett
and two-time Honorable Mention All-American Mandie Nugent
are looking for successful transitions from top Big East swimmers to the top Big 12 swimmers. Burnett, a two-time Big East Most Outstanding Women’s Swimmer honoree, is seeded No. 1 in the 500 free (4:41.37), No. 2 in the 1650 free (9:48.33), No. 5 in the 200 free (1:47.35) and No. 13 in the 100 free (51.67).
Nugent, a four-time individual Big East Champion, is seeded No. 1 in the 200 fly (1:58.10), No. 5 in the 100 fly (54.24) and No. 7 in the 500 free (4:54.46).
The duo will not be resting for the meet, but will be using this as an opportunity to race at a high level and get some suited swims in before NCAAs.
“They have reached the level of a Division 1 athlete that has made NCAAs without having to rest and that was our goal going into the season,” Riggs says. “With that, comes the expectation that though they’ll not be fully rested, they are now at a level where we expect them to perform either at or better where they were at U.S. Short Course Nationals.”
With the new NCAA qualifying rules, there is also a better chance for individual qualifiers. Senior Breanna McCann
, junior Danielle Smith
and sophomore Jenelle Zee
are all looking at having an opportunity of qualifying individually. With top finishes at the Big 12s, there is a very real chance.
“We could end up with six individuals and a couple of relays or a couple of individuals and three relays,” Riggs says. “All of those girls that have an opportunity to make NCAAs are seeded very well with individuals that have already made the meet. There competition is right there with them, so if we can be competitive and race, those girls will carry us to NCAAs.”
Smith is seeded No. 2 in the 200 back (1:58.62), No. 3 in the 100 back (54.02) and No. 9 in the 500 free (4:55.24). McCann and Zee currently sit in the No. 4 seeds in the 200 IM (2:02.18) and 100 breast (1:02.33), respectively.
When Riggs made the decision to redshirt three of his top men’s swimmers, he knew that it was going to be a developmental year, but the team has come a long way and is looking to peak at the championships. The squad is led by seven swimmers who will be competing in their first conference championships.
“Ultimately, we feel that we have some guys who have made great strides from last year,” Riggs says. “Daeton (Davenport) will have the opportunity for some real good swims. The learning curve has shown for our freshman this year, but I think Hugh (Simmonds), Chris Brill and (Nathan) Cobbe will bring some of the experience we need to have that leadership to help with relays and get some swims at night.”
Brill is WVU’s highest seeded male at No. 2 in the 200 breast (2:03.07) and No. 6 in the 100 breast (56.84). Cobbe and Simmonds will be looking to make a splash in the mid-distance events, each swimming in the 200 free and 500 free. Cobbe is seeded No. 5 in the 200 free (1:39.34) and No. 8 in the 500 free (4:28.50), while Simmonds is at No. 13 in the 200 free (1:40.35) and No. 17 in the 500 free (4:33.80). Davenport will make his splash in the mile (No. 6 – 9:24.74) and the 500 free (No. 10 – 4:26.53).
“For our freshmen it’s going to be an opportunity to see what it takes to make NCAAs,” Riggs says. “Anything can happen on any given day, but the opportunity to see what these kids do to make the meet is going to be very beneficial for those individuals. The guys are in some very good heats and going to be able to race some individuals who are already going to NCAAs. If they have the desire, they’re going to have that opportunity to compete and get a trip to Indy.”
WVU will also be sending its best crop of divers to the conference championships this season, a total of five men and four women. On the men’s side, juniors Richard Pokorny
and Liam McLaughlin
, along with freshman Christian Parker
have all qualified for the NCAA Zone Diving Championships. The women are led by sophomore Haily VandePoel
and Jenn Rey, while freshman Lindsay Schmidt
has qualified for Zones as well.
“I can’t compliment (diving coach) Mike (Grapner) enough on what he has done with the diving program in the two and a half years that he’s been here,” Riggs says. “He’s exceeded every expectation that I think we could be accomplished in a short amount of time. He’s working hard to get these kids to think about NCAAs, and I don’t think it will be long before that takes place.”
Competition begins tonight at 7 p.m., with the 200 medley relay, the 800 free relay and action on the 1-meter board for the men.