Oct. 16, 2013
DAVIS, Calif. - Less than eight months after defeating the likes of BYU and Hawai'i in reclaiming the Mountain Pacific Sports Federation championship, the UC Davis women's swimming & diving program kicks off its 2013 season - and the march toward a conference title defense - at the Pacific Invitational Saturday.
For the most part, the Aggies return the lion's share of the squad that claimed the MPSF banner despite the ever-increasing field. Of the 13 swimmers or divers who captured all-conference accolades, only Bridget Bugbee and Morgan Lee were seniors. All three MPSF individual champions return for at least another year: Liliana Alvarez (100 breaststroke), Katie Edwards (200 freestyle) and Samantha Shellem (500 freestyle).
UC Davis returns six student-athletes who hit school records in 2013-14: Shellem (500 free, 1,000 free), Edwards (200 free), Marissa Brown (1,650 free), Hilary Hunt (200 back), Audrey DeNeffe (platform diving) and Hanna Tears (1-meter springboard).
Veteran head coach Barbara Jahn, who reclaimed MPSF Coach of the Year honors last winter, expects to draw on a similar recipe of success for this season: a combination of strong individual performances plus depth at each stroke. Besides those rewriting the school record book, several program veterans provided scoring punch with high finishes in the championship and consolation finals. Haley Porter, Megan Leung, Sabrina Cochrane, Sam Rados and Lucy Lafranchise each contributed at least 23 points despite not finishing among the top three in any event.
"I'm going to rely a lot on their experience, having been to three conference championships that have been different each year," said Jahn. "They have been able to step up and perform at a high level."
Porter, a transfer who began her collegiate career at UNLV, proved to be a welcome addition to the Aggie program last season. She swam in all three freestyle relay squads, including as the anchor of the MPSF-champion 800 foursome. Jahn also cites a freshman and Davis High product Marissa LaFreniere, a former Sac-Joaquin Section champ in the 100 free, as another potential contributor.
"We don't have a whole barnful of sprinters so were are in the mode of developing them," said Jahn, who summoned Hunt from her usual backstroke duties to aid the shorter freestyle relays and score the Aggies' best 50 free time of 2012-13. Similarly, Shellem is another possibility for action in the shorter races: in addition to her abilities in the distance events, she boasts one of the team's better 50 times.
In contrast to the sprints, UC Davis owns tremendous depth in the longer races. Shellem and Brown posted the top two all-time times in each of the 500, 1000 and 1650 events. Shellem also joined Edwards to form a 1-2 exacta in the 200 free at last year's MPSF meet. Add juniors Marilyn Carey and Cara Silvas, each of whom eclipsed the five-minute mark in the 500 in 2012-13; and freshman Kirsten Brand, who won three NISCA All-America awards for Amador Valley High last year, and it's easy to see why Jahn feels confident about the Aggies' strength in these events.
Hunt, who posted top-three finishes in each backstroke at last year's conference meet, showed at last weekend's Blue-Gold Intrasquad that she is prime and ready to advance her game another step. "She has been training hard and diligently, and we're trying to set her up to get to the big dance," said Jahn, referring to the NCAA Championships. "That would be sweet, and she deserves it."
The versatile Cochrane also posted scoring finishes in the backstroke events, while Lauren Damian hopes to step up at the end of 2013-14 in the manner in which she has performed at two Mizzou Invitational meets.
While Hunt looks to make her first trip to the NCAA Championships in the backstroke, Alvarez looks to qualify for the national meet for a fourth straight year. She did not make the trip in 2012-13 due to illness, but the start of her senior year renews the desire to claim an All-America meet at the big meet.
With Morgan Lee having graduated after back-to-back third places at the conference meet, Alvarez has a different teammate to provide chase in the breaststroke events - one who could even join her on the trip to Minneapolis for the national meet. "Lili is being challenged this year by Katie Edwards," said Jahn. "We're focusing Katie on the 200 breast rather than being a middle distance freestyler because we think that might be the best chance for her to make the big dance."
"Having a training partner who can really push you to the next level is a benefit to both of them," Jahn said. "We talk about training shoulder to shoulder and heart to heart. This is a good example of that."
The loss of Megan Leung and Karley Troup shorthands the Aggies at this stroke. Leung has earned All-MPSF honors in both the 100- and 200-yard events in each of the last two seasons. Troup advanced to the consols in each fly race at last year's conference meet and earned All-MPSF second-team distinction in 2012, but preseason surgery means she will have to wait another year before she can compete alongside her younger sister Lexy, who joins the UC Davis program as a distance freestyler after spending her freshman year at UCLA. Junior Ali Paris and 2012 All-MPSF honoree Sara Ramos are also sidelined due to various ailments.
Thus, shouldering the burden in the butterfly will be freshman Hilvy Cheung of Fremont, Calif. A North Coast Section finalist and NISCA All-American in the 100 fly for American High, Cheung was easily the top Aggie performer in Saturday's intrasquad. As such, Jahn expects to call upon swimmers in other areas to provide support in the 100 fly, such as Damian, or breaststroke specialist Caroline Weston or sprint freestyler Hailey Ferko.
"That's the one thing about being on a college team is that you do what the team needs you to do," said Jahn. "It's not like U.S. Swimmingh where you get to pick and choose your events, and then you just focus on those. We need to develop all four strokes and then ask people to step up and take one for the team, so to speak."
"Stepping up" is precisely where UC Davis scored a substantial amount of points when it comes to the multi-stroke events. Rados beat her previous best in the 400 IM by more than four seconds to place fourth at conference last year. Edwards and Cochrane stormed to strong times in the 200-meter race to place second and sixth, respectively. Brown narrowly missed a berth in the 400 IM finals at the conference meet. She broke into the 4:23 range at both the Mizzou Invite in December and the MPSF Championships in February.
The young triple threat of Lafranchise, DeNeffe and Tears is back for a second year of high scoring on the various boards. Even more promising is the return of senior co-captain Jen Meyer, who won the 1-meter title and finished second on 3-meter at the last Big West Conference meet in 2010. She led the Aggies in each of her first two MPSF championship meets but sat out all of last year due to injury. Meyer returns stronger than ever according to Jahn, and her experience and leadership will continue to guide a solid diving corps that also features veterans Shannon Stewart and Lauren Jesse.
"They have all learned new dives with a higher DD [degree of difficulty]. Taking them to Stanford to train on the tower has been a huge benefit to the program. This is the second year we've done that and we will continue to do that," said Jahn, a former collegiate diver herself. "Phil Tonne has done a really good job of creating an environment where they train and don't waste a lot of time."
Now in her 39th year at the UC Davis helm, Jahn is confident in her team's chances to contend for a third conference title in four years, but experienced enough to know that every meet of all types will aid in that process. Last weekend's Blue-Gold meet and Saturday's Pacific Invitational are no exceptions, as they transition the team from the grind of preseason training into competition mode. The MPSF has gotten stronger in recent years, and Hawai'i and BYU will look to avenge the sting of being upset by the mid-major UC Davis program.
"The same teams are going to be there this year but each squad has a different composition," said Jahn. "They've got new people in, they had seniors graduate. So I think it's going to be a real close race for the top spot between three teams. So how we prepare during the season will predict better what we can do at the end."
PREVIEW VIDEO WITH COACH JAHN, TEAM CAPTAINS: