The ONU women’s swimming and diving team got a taste of the 2017-18 season when they competed in their official first full meet at the Calvin Invitational last weekend.
“We’re ahead of where we were this time last year even though we haven’t had any meets up to this weekend,” said head men’s and women’s swimming coach Peggy Ewald. “Typically, this meet would be around the 3rd or 4th meet of our season. We’re learning a lot more in a championship format that we need to make adjustments for the rest of the season and we have more time to do that.”
The meet spanned two days and was organized in the same format as the OAC championship meet, with 20 different events.
The team finished fourth behind No. 22-ranked Calvin (Mich.), Albion (Mich.), and Carthage (Wisc.), and garnered four individual titles, as sophomore Lauren Halle, freshman Marissa Taylor, and senior Sydney Veon won the 400 I.M. and 200 fly, 200 I.M., and 100 breast, respectively.
“Overall, a lot of girls performed better than what we had expected and we came out with some good wins,” said Veon. “This was our first chance to get out there and really compete. There are a lot of meets coming up. It will give us a good opportunity to really get going on fixing some things before our February championship comes around.”
The Polar Bears will return to action on Friday at Wilmington and again at home on Saturday in their Swim for Cystic Fibrosis event against John Carroll. Veon encourages students to show their support during the home meet as well as throughout the season in order to help both the team achieve its conference goals.
The highly anticipated OAC Championship meet will be held Feb. 15-17 at the University of Akron. The women have historically dominated the conference, as they held a 6-year winning streak at the championships until the 2014-15 season, when they placed second.
Since then, they have struggled to resurface. They placed third in the OAC both during the regular season and at the championship meet last year, and this year, they face a new challenge.
“We have fewer women to work with,” said Ewald. “We didn’t start the season that way, but for one reason or another, either injuries or academic situations, we have the smallest women’s team that we’ve had in awhile. That’s going to be a change that they’re going to have to be open to stepping up to more positions.”
Numbers have seen a steady decrease since 2011, and last year was the first year in six years that the roster number dipped below 20, ringing in at 17 women. Numbers this year had gone back up, only to fall back down to 17 women partway through the season.
This decrease in number early in the season, combined with the loss of last year’s senior class has created several event gaps, especially in distance events, according to Ewald.
“Championships are won by numbers and they’re won by depth in events, so it can present challenges,” she said. “We are now down our distance swimmers, so that is going to leave event holes that at this point, one third of the way through the season, I don’t know that we can really fill.”
However, the ONU women’s team is no stranger to adversity, especially when it comes to small numbers.
“We watched 11 women win our first championship out of 18 possible scoring spots,” Ewald said. “It’s possible, but it takes the right group of women to do that. I think that this group has a better opportunity of doing that than we had, so that’s exciting.”
Ewald is referring to the 2007 championship meet when 11 women brought home the trophy without the permitted additional seven competitors. Several components will have to come together first in order for the women to repeat history. The bottom of the roster will have to move up, while the top of the roster will have to solidify according to Ewald.
In addition, the layout of the conference will be different, as the OAC will return to the five original competing teams this year rather than the seven teams featured last year. This change will double the number of scoring spots from last year, which introduces some uncertainty to a young team that has never before witnessed this format.
Veon said that the team will address this uncertainty by finding good positions where they can get ahead within the OAC and returning to the competitive mindset they once had. Ewald added that adapting to changes and having confidence in the overall process will also be important.
But the key element to the women’s success, in Ewald’s eyes, will be team unification. She firmly believes in bringing up the team as a whole rather than just a few individuals.
Ewald will rely on her upperclassmen to set the standard for the newer members and is satisfied with the leadership roles they have filled so far.
“We have some good seniors who are stepping up,” she said. “Sydney is a great example. It’s good to see [our freshmen] be mentored by those people because strong women can help build strong women, and I like to think that they can do that this year.”
Veon said that she looks forward to helping her teammates grow through the program. She understands that it is part of her role to nurture them in a way that they can bring in more numbers to help form a larger team.
While the numbers might not be present this year, she has seen progress and identified some season goals.
“Every year it’s just ‘take back what is ours,’” she said. “It’s well-earned. So far in this pre-season and season, we’ve risen above [Ewald’s expectations] and really brought it out. Every day [Ewald] talks about setting goals and trying to beat them, and we’re doing great so far.”