BALTIMORE – For the first time since joining the America East Conference in 2003, the UMBC swimming and diving programs enter the season not as conference champions. Despite having the conference's Most Outstanding Male Swimmer, Mohamed Hussein, the Most Outstanding Male Diver, Andrew Eckhoff, and the Women's Coaches' Award Recipient, Abbey McKenney, the Retrievers were knocked off at the 2012 championships by meet host Boston University. Last year's results, however, may be just what program needs to take the next step.
"A conference championship isn't taken for granted around here anymore," said head coach Chad Cradock. "I think our team is in a better place because we're focused on what is ahead of us and we're excited to start a new season."
And though the squad loses McKenney, along with numerous past conference champions, Cradock is confident that this year's group will elevate itself for the challenge ahead.
"This is a totally different team this year and I'm looking for the vast majority of the returners, not just the seniors, to grow and become leaders," the UMBC alum and 12th-year head coach said. "I'm really excited to see new people rise up and lead this team even if they are not a captain."
But even if Cradock is looking for the team as a whole to step up to the challenge of reclaiming the conference crown, he needs to look no further than the three captains he appointed this summer.
Now a senior, Andrew Eckhoff is the only returning captain from the 2011-12 squad and the only male captain this season. Last year he earned the conference's highest athletic honor at the championship meet after claiming both the 1-meter and 3-meter titles. Eckhoff has been a leader during his first three years in the classroom as well and was named the America East Swimming and Diving Scholar-Athlete last year.
"There's no question of how hard Andrew works," said Cradock. "He gains tremendous respect from his peers for the amount of time and effort he puts forth."
For the women, seniors Jennifer Kotonias and Claire Barron will lead a team looking to get back to the top of the podium for the fourth time since 2003. Though first-year captains, both swimmers have enjoyed plenty of success during their careers in Baltimore.
A year ago, Kotonias was named an Honorable Mention honoree on the CollegeSwimming.com Mid-Major All-America list after winning eight individual events during the dual meet season. Then in Boston at the championships, the Burtonsville, Md. native, won a silver medal in the 200-yd. butterfly and a bronze medal in the 400 IM.
Joining her classmate as a captain, Barron won three individual events during UMBC's regular season and then helped both the 200-yd. and 400-yd. medley relay teams win gold at the America East Championships.
While the number of captains for the program has been cut in half this season, Cradock can rely on the experience and leadership of a wide array of athletes, beginning with Hussein and senior Pierre De Waal, who both nearly qualified for the 2012 Summer Olympics in London.
After coming to UMBC in the middle of the season last year from his native Egypt, Hussein took the competition by storm by winning three individual gold medals – 100-yd. backstroke, 200-yd. IM and 200 back – at the conference meet, each in record time. Then after the season, Hussein, who had already qualified for the Games in the 100m free, set the Egyptian national record and qualified in the 200m IM as well. His dream was cut short when FINA changed the necessary qualifying times just weeks before the competition.
De Waal was also impressive for the Retrievers a year ago, matching Hussein with three gold medals in Boston. A versatile swimmer, De Waal broke the meet, pool, and UMBC school record in the 200 fly with a time of 1:46.68. During the spring, De Waal competed at the South Africa Olympic Trials, but fell just short behind eventual Olympic gold medal winner Chad Le Clos.
Rounding out the trio of Olympic hopefuls, junior Patrick Husson should be factor for the Retrievers in 2012-13. The Camp Springs, Md. native, swam a season-best 57.46 in the 100 breast while swimming as an exhibition athlete at the conference meet and went on to make the U.S. Olympic Trials in Omaha, Neb. over the summer.
In addition, the men's team brings back a talented field of past winners and leaders. Relay anchor and sprinter Steve Gallagher returns for once last charge while junior Johan Rohtla, the 2011 200-yd. back champion, and countryman Lauri Kaei also return for Cradock.
"We bring back a lot of tremendous athletes on the men's side," Cradock said. "I'm really looking forward to having them for another year to watch them work and progress even further."
The women's side is not quite as proven as the men's side going into the 2012-13 season, but Cradock still has plenty of talent to work with.
One of the biggest assets for UMBC this season will be the return of senior Amy Fay. Forced out of action in the middle of the 2011-12 season due to elbow surgery, Fay will boost the Retrievers' distance squad as she looks to reclaim the 500 free conference title she won in 2011.
In the backstroke, junior Klara Pavelkova is back for the Black and Gold. Last year as a sophomore, she won the 100-yd. backstroke in a UMBC school-record time of 56.00 at the America East Championships and then promptly reset the standard at 55.76 while helping the 400 medley relay win gold.
Also, seniors Elise Blaschke and Tara Morrissette return for their final campaigns in Baltimore hungry to get back to the top. Blaschke swept the backstroke events against George Washington last year while also winning a silver medal in the 100-yd. event at the Patriot Invitational. Morrissette, meanwhile, looks to reclaim her 2011 form when she won three medals at the conference meet. Last year, she won the 200 butterfly against GW and was named to the conference All-Academic Team for the second consecutive year.
In the breaststroke, UMBC hopes to see continued progress from sophomores Becca Pindral and Lexi Coon to aid Barron. At the conference championships last year, Pindral and Coon both set season-best times with Pindral dropping five seconds in the prelims and then another two in the event finals to claim fifth place in the 200-yd. event.
On the diving boards, senior Victoria Monetta and sophomore Katie Bean return after leading the team during the 2011-12 campaign. Monetta scored a career and 2011-12 team-best 246.53 in the 1-meter against local rival Towson before taking ninth in the event at the championships. Bean, meanwhile, earned a team-best 3-meter score of 258.10 in a tri-dual meet against Loyola and Towson and then won a bronze medal in the high dive in Boston.
And with all of the experience still present on the squad, Cradock likes the way the freshman have been brought on board. With a total of 12 newcomers, five men and seven women, the Retrievers look to get some results from the rookies, just maybe not right away.
"The team has been making comments daily about how they have enjoyed having the freshman join the team," said Cradock." We're excited to have them make contributions to the team, and they will play a major role for us, but we'll let them come into their own first."
Perhaps the most noticeable improvement for the Retrievers this season will be their home pool, the newly rebranded UMBC Aquatic Complex. This past summer, the complex received a face lift for the first time in nearly forty years as renovations and improvements were made to the diving boards, pool, starting blocks, HVAC system and the pool deck tile. And with the new paint job and bright white, black and gold tile, the renovations have not gone unnoticed.
"The team is very excited and ready to get going in the new pool," Cradock said. "The athletes and coaches recognize how this will help with recruiting and boost the program as a whole."
In addition to a redone facility, the Retrievers' schedule has seen a slight overhaul as the teams prepare for the conference meet in Orono, Maine without title rival BU in the mix, due to the school's departure from the America East. As local rivals Navy and Loyola remain on the slate to go along with the annual trip to the Patriot Invitational, UMBC adds regional contenders Old Dominion and East Carolina.
"We've put together a tough schedule, but it allows us to be strong all-around as a team," said Cradock. "Even without BU in the mix, the conference championship is our goal, but we're focused on ourselves and getting better to achieve the desired results."
Both teams begin their season this Saturday, Sept. 29 as Bucknell comes to Baltimore for an exhibition meet. The Retrievers' first competition comes two weeks later, Oct. 13 when Rider, as well as the James Madison women's team, travels to UMBC for a 1 p.m. meet.