MORGANTOWN, W. Va. - It has not always been smooth sailing for the West Virginia University men and women’s diving teams, especially as the graduate assistants that coach the divers switch every two years. But with the addition of coach Michael Grapner, the program has been able to flourish. This year, the team is better than ever and ready to showcase its hard work at this weekend’s BIG EAST Championships in Pittsburgh, Pa.
Representing the Mountaineer men will be senior Matt O’Neill and sophomore Richard Pokorny, while freshmen Haily VandePoel and Jenn Rey will be diving for the women.
With the 2011-12 season being Grapner’s first as a full-time coach, having joining the staff in December 2011, it allowed him to develop a more structured program and also gave him more time to work closely with the divers.
“I have a little bit more experience with the team,” he explained. “With Matt and Richard being here last year and Jen and Haily this year, it adds a better team atmosphere. We’re also more prepared in knowing that the divers are in better shape than they were last year and what to expect the competition to be like.”
The divers have seen the benefits of having a full-time coach. Pokorny felt practices this year were a lot more organized, serious and intense compared to what they used to be. O’Neill not only thought it was helpful this year, but knows it will be helpful in the future.
“Having a full-time head coach has been nice and I know that we already have two really good recruits coming in next year for both the men and women," O'Neill said. "The program is growing, the numbers are going to get bigger and the quality of divers is going to get better.”
For O’Neill, this will be a bittersweet moment as it will be his last trip to the BIG EAST Championships with his teammates. As one of the few senior men competing this year, O’Neill is ready to give it all he’s got.
“This is my third coach and I have been through a lot of teammate changes as well," O'Neill recalled. "Now I’m the old man and ready to finish up. Everybody is looking at me to do the best; I’m not in the shadows anymore.”
This will be O’Neill’s third appearance at the BIG EAST Championships. As a sophomore, O’Neill placed 12th on the 1-meter and the 3-meter. Knowing what to expect the next year as a junior, O’Neill went on to take seventh on the 1-meter and 3-meter. This year he intends to continue his trend of better finishes.
“I’ve improved every year, diving better and placing better, so I am hoping to do the same this year," O'Neill said. "My main goal is to win, but I’ll be happy as long as I do well. I’m not really concerned as much about place as I am about just doing my best.”
Grapner knows O’Neill has high expectations this year, and is confident that he will be able to complete his goal.
“It’s all about the attitude. Regardless of what year you are it’s an individual sport, where you measure yourself against the other athletes that you have to go compete against," Grapner said. "With this being his senior year, I definitely think he wants to go out with a bang. This year he has big goals set, it is just putting the words in action.”
O’Neill isn’t the only Mountaineer looking to improve on his performance. This will be Pokorny’s second appearance at the BIG EAST Championships. He feels more prepared going into this year’s championship because he knows what to expect. Last year, Pokorny finished 14th on the 3-meter.
“I came into the meet with an injury last year," Pokorny said. "This year I feel good and am hoping to do some good things. I have more experience, I’m more excited, I know what I have to do and am ready to do big things.”
Grapner has seen the difference in the men’s diving from last year to this year improve. He is certain they have the skills to get them the scores they are looking for.
“From where they were last year to where they are now is leaps and bounds," Grapner says. "They have been diving more consistently, have more degree of difficulty, have better lists and more confidence stepping on and off the board. They know what is expected of them.”
As freshmen, both VandePoel and Rey will be competing in their first BIG EAST Championships. With help from their coach and their teammates, the girls hope to do well. O’Neill is unsure if the girls really understand the difference between competing in a dual meet and competing in a college championship.
“They’ve both been to big meets before, but once you get to your first college championship it’s just a whole new atmosphere," O'Neill explained. "There are a lot of good divers at the meet and I think it will be easier for them with Rich and I there to help them through it.”
One thing that may help the girls is their familiarity with the venue. The team has competed at Trees Pool in Pitt already this season.
“It helps because we have practiced there and we had another meet at Pitt earlier this season,” said VandePoel. “We’re familiar with the pool and that is one less scary thing about the meet.”
Even with the added pressure of the championship atmosphere and not knowing all of her competitors, VandePoel is still ready to compete and take in the BIG EAST experience.
“I’m just hoping to go in and do my best. I hope to make the finals on both the 1-meter and the 3-meter, but I’m there to have fun as well.”
Like the men, Grapner feels the girls are prepared to handle the competition. He has seen the girls grow into collegiate athletes that are ready to take on the challenges that face them.
“They have completely expanded their diving repertoires," Grapner said. "Hailey is a competitor and knows how to compete but she still knows that she has some work to do. Jen has improved as a diver and has gotten stronger. They are both feeding each other confidence even though they don’t know what to expect.”
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