By Anthony Kuipers, University of Idaho Athletic Media Relations
The future of the University of Idaho Swimming and Diving team seemed uncertain when an entirely new coaching staff took over before the 2011-12 season.
It is clear, now, that the future is extremely bright.
“It was a tremendous season in a lot of ways,” Coach Mark Sowa said. “When we got here, we weren’t exactly sure what to expect. To say that we were pleasantly surprised was an understatement.”
Breakout performances highlighted Sowa’s inaugural season as a Vandal. The team put its stamp on the program’s history book by breaking records in 12 events, which includes eight at the Western Athletic Conference Championship meet. Idaho finished seventh overall in that meet.
“That shows the depth of the program,” Sowa said. “It’s not just one kid that’s doing that. It’s multiple kids. I think that’s exciting.”
Other highlights of the season include two strong performances at home against PAC-12 teams. The Vandals tied Oregon State in a meet where senior Savannah Bettis broke the school’s 200 butterfly record. They followed that by orchestrating a dominant 159.5-134.5 win against Palouse rival Washington State on Senior Day.
Idaho also competed well on the road. The Vandals earned impressive victories at Seattle University and Fresno State. They battled against some of the top programs in the country at the Houston Cougar Classic where they broke six school records and set numerous career bests.
Sowa said their success at the Houston Cougar Classic became a turning point in the season.
“I think they surprised themselves at how well they swam,” Sowa said. “Success breeds more success. I think they got excited watching each other swim fast or dive well. That stuff’s contagious. What that did was it really translated to better training coming off of that.”
Soon after its trip to Texas, CollegeSwimming.com ranked Idaho 25th among mid-major schools in the country. Sowa said Idaho deserves to be mentioned among the elite programs.
“I think that’s where we should be,” Sowa said. “We want to compete against schools like that across the country. I firmly believe we can. We’ve got a lot to offer here at the University of Idaho. It’s a fantastic academic institution. We are supported wholeheartedly by our athletic department, by athletic director Rob Spear. I love the town of Moscow. It’s a great town. The town itself supports athletics here and women’s athletics specifically. So we should be able to compete with teams like that.”
Sowa has plenty of reasons to be optimistic about the future. Talented underclassmen filled the Idaho roster and many record-breaking swimmers and divers will return next season.
Freshman Rachel Millet gave everyone a glimpse of her astounding potential this season by breaking the 50, 100 and 200 free events as well as swimming a leg of the record-breaking 800 free and 400 medley relay teams. She also added three Verizon WAC Swimmer of the Week awards to her many accolades. Junior diver Paige Hunt set records in all three diving events while earning two Verizon WAC Diver of the Week awards. She qualified for the Zone Championships where she finished 17th in the 1-meter event and 13th in the 3-meter and Platform events.
Junior Kelsie Saxe and sophomore Lyndsay Williams made significant strides in their careers. Saxe set the school record in the 100 and 200 breaststroke and Williams holds the school record in the 200 and 400 IM.
Idaho will say goodbye to five seniors in Savannah Bettis, Calleagh Brown, Katie Hendricks, Si Jia Pang and Chelsey Stanger. Sowa said the seniors “meant everything” to the team and admired their leadership amid the coaching change.
“It is very difficult to swim for one person for three years of your college career and finally get to your senior year, which is so special, and have a brand new coaching staff,” Sowa said. “They easily could have reacted poorly to that and they did the exact opposite. They embraced everything we tried to do as a staff.”
Sowa said the example they set as Vandal swimmers will leave a lasting impact on the program.
“I think they’re going to look back at their senior year four years from now when we’re competing to win conference championships and know that they’re a part of that,” he said.
Sowa signed five new swimmers in the fall. Freshman Kirah Monks, from Whitby, Ontario, joined the team in January. Other recruits include Sumner, Wash. , native Sami Hendricks (sister of Katie Hendricks) , Emily Renzini from Colbert, Wash., Janelle Stacy from Ketchikan Alaska, and Jamie Sterbis from Brookings, S.D. Sowa said the returners and new additions should continue to shake up the record books.
“I think this is not the end of us breaking records,” he said. “I think it’s only the beginning and this program will continue to get better.”