BALTIMORE – Last season, the UMBC men's swimming and diving program regained its America East Conference title by scoring 1,075 points, a conference meet record, and earned its first-ever national ranking. In addition, Mohamed Hussein (Cairo, Egypt/Victory College) was named the National Swimmer of the Week by CollegeSwimming.com and later became the first Retriever male swimmer, and third overall, to qualify for the NCAA Championships. On the women's side, UMBC finished second to New Hampshire at the conference meet, but also made its first jump into the national poll. But none of that now matters, in a way, because the new season starts on Saturday.
"Last year was great, but this time around we need to take it a step further," said head coach Chad Cradock, who is entering his 13th season in charge of his alma mater. "Our team is focused on the task at hand and not previous accomplishments.
"This team has really adopted the unity and team spirit that we started last year, which I believe is the key to our success."
It is important for the team to develop a family atmosphere quickly as UMBC welcomed 29 freshmen to the squad this season. The number of newcomers does not worry Cradock, but rather gives him, his coaching staff and team more excitement heading into the new season.
"We're excited to have all of the freshmen joining our team because they bring a fresh feel to the program and a lot of positivity," Cradock stated. "They have already made some unique and smart decisions which are putting our program in a shining light, and I'm proud of how they've integrated nicely into our team."
"We're eager to watch each of our newcomers grow and become major contributors to our program."
With all of the freshmen coming to campus, Cradock and his staff have had plenty of veteran leadership to rely on both in the pool and in the locker room. Even with the graduation of 19 seniors from the 2012-13 team, UMBC brings back 11 athletes who won at lead one gold medal at last year's America East meet, including Hussein who was named the America East Championships and ECAC Championships Most Outstanding Male Swimmer.
Since coming to Baltimore, Hussein has taken the Retrievers' competition by storm, claiming six individual conference golds in the past two years America East meet, and winning 27 events in 15 dual meets. In addition to being honored as the national Swimmer of the Week on Feb. 20, 2013, Hussein has received the conference's top weekly honor on six occasions.
"Mohamed brings a sense of accomplishment to our team and he is a leader by example," said Cradock. "He always give 100-percent in practice and he's just a happy guy that people enjoy being around.
"Obviously having an NCAA qualifier on our roster is a positive thing as it gives our team someone to aspire and grow with."
But the leadership does not run through one person for Cradock's Retrievers as the men and women both selected three captains to lead them through the upcoming campaign. Seniors Evan Carey (Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla./Grand Island), Brian Keane (Hanson, Mass./Boston College HS/Arizona), and Reed Neuendorf (Blauvelt, N.Y./Tappan Zee) will guide the men's squad, while seniors Patty Hallberg (Severna Park, Md./Broadneck) and Erika Ronning (Western Springs, Ill./Lyons Township), as well as junior Lexi Coon (Camden, Del./Milford), were chosen to lead the women.
"We're very excited for our new leadership," said coach Cradock. "Each individual is very different and brings something unique to the position and to the program."
Last season, the three male captains combined to win eight dual meet events as the Retrievers completed just their second-ever undefeated season. Then, at the conference meet, Carey aided the 200 and 400 free relay teams to gold medals, in addition to winning silver medals in the 100 and 200 free, while Neuendorf picked up a silver in the 400 IM and a bronze in the 1,650 freestyle.
For the women, Ronning collected a total of four golds after winning six dual meet races and Coon earned her first career dual meet event win. Combining leadership in the pool and in the classroom, Hallberg was one of seven Retrievers to earn a spot on the America East All-Academic Team in 2012-13.
In addition to the six captains, the Retrievers have plenty of other accomplished veterans to lead them into the new season.
Junior Rob Breen (Danvers, Mass./St. John's Prep) collected his first career gold medal last year while leading UMBC to a sweep of the top medals in the 1,650 free. Breen also won silver in the 500 free and bronze in the 200 and looks to pace the distance squad again.
As a freshman, Leo Endres (Bamberg, Germany/Kaiser Heinrich Gymnasium) vaulted himself to the top of UMBC's breaststroke list by winning a gold medal in the 200-yd. event in school record time, while also taking third in the 100-yd. competition. Mid-year transfer Daniel Cano (Madrid, Spain/IES Ortega y Gasset) provides a nice back-up punch after claiming silver in both of the breaststroke races.
Lauri Kaei (Harjumaa, Estonia/Talllinn Secondary Science) continued to cement his place as one of the Retrievers' go-to swimmers after winning nine dual meet events as a sophomore and then helping the Black and Gold win two relay golds at the conference meet.
Though two-time captain and NCAA Zones qualifier Andrew Eckhoff graduated in the spring, the Retrievers will still be strong on the diving boards with the return of junior Ryan Green (Ellicott City, Md./Centennial) and junior Carson Wong (Hong Kong/Kowloon Technical School). Last season, Green joined Eckhoff at the regional meet after scoring a career-best 318.08 against West Virginia, while Wong finished third and fourth, respectively, in the 3-meter and 1-meter events at the America East Championships.
The women also have a strong returning contingent of veterans to hopefully push the Retrievers back to the top of the America East leaderboard, including seniors Talor Tadena (Orangevale, Calif./Bella Vista) and Klara Pavelkova (Prague, Czech Republic/Gymnasium Pripotocni). Tadena earned five total gold medals (two individual, three relay) last year as a junior, setting a new UMBC school record en route to winning the top medal in the 100-yd breaststroke. Pavelkova, meanwhile, combined with Tadena on the record-setting 200 medley relay team while also breaking the school record and claiming the 100-yd. backstroke title.
On the diving boards, sophomore Corinna Darelius (Rye, N.Y./Rye) returns after a successful rookie campaign. As a freshman, Darelius qualified for the NCAA Zones Meet, in addition to winning four dual meet events, earning conference Diver of the Week twice, and collecting a silver medal at the conference championships.
With this combination of youth and experience, Cradock is ready for the season to start.
"We can't wait for the new season," the head Retriever said. "This season looks really bright for us as we have some great competition lined up during the dual meet season, but we're even more excited for our conference meets at the end of the year and enjoying them one at a time."
The 29 freshmen change the complexion of the team, but the biggest alteration for this year's Retriever squad is the post-season championships schedule. While the women will look to overtake 2013 America East champion New Hampshire, the men have moved to the Coastal Collegiate Swimming Association (CCSA) which will hold its championship meet at the University of Tennessee on Feb. 20-22.
"Our women absolutely got a taste of the opportunity for success by being so close last year," said Cradock. "I think it has made them hungry to compete as the underdog this time around and that sets us up well to achieve our desired success.
"For the men, this is a big year as a lot of our individuals have grown and the CCSA meet will be the most competitive atmosphere that our program has been in since I started coaching here in 2001."
The Retrievers begin their 2013-14 schedule with an exhibition meet at Bucknell on Saturday, Oct. 5. The next week UMBC will travel to Lawrenceville, N.J. for its first dual meet of the season.