For the first time in head coach Kyle Clements' tenure, the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee men's swimming & diving team enters the season in a bit of unchartered waters. That seems odd to say for the team that has won the past three Horizon League Championships. But for the first time in four years, the Panthers will be entering the pool without last year's senior group that was the backbone of the team during its four years in the Black and Gold. While the roster will look a little different this year, the team is still confident the end result will be the same.
"It's going to be different this year," Milwaukee head coach Kyle Clements said. "To not look over my shoulder and have those young men that were such a big part of this program standing behind me will be different, but we are still ready for another run to defend our title."
By no means is the cupboard left bare for this season. On the contrary, Milwaukee still returns the majority of three all-league relay teams as well as two of its school-record holders.
"This year's team is, once again, very deep," Clements said. "Some of that depth will come from the 13 newcomers that we added this year. The talent is already there with those young men and we're going to need them to step in for us this year. Each team is a little different and we are in a very tough conference, but we are ready to go to work and defend our title again."
Whatever the formula is for producing strong sprinters, Milwaukee has it figured out. Last year, the Panthers churned out four top-10 showings in the 50 freestyle, four more in the top-13 in the 100 free and an additional four in the top-eight in the 200 free.
"We have a very solid group of guys in our sprint groups," Clements said. "Our group is not necessarily the fastest in conference, but we are very deep and will continue to be this year."
Senior Nathan Welchlin holds the school record in the 200 free and led the way for Milwaukee in all three events last year. Sam Niesen, Mike Schalla, Mike Brady, Caleb Sandvold all also represented the Black & Gold at the league meet last year and are joined by sophomore transfer Mike Lucchesi who finished runner-up at the Wisconsin high school state meet as a senior. Freshmen Tanner Nimke, Riley Spitzig and Erik Wahlgren all also figure to factor in this year.
Going into last season, Milwaukee looked like a strong, yet aging group in the middle-distance and distance events. There were many key contributors, but most were upper classmen.
This year, the picture is much different.
Milwaukee still has some strong senior leaders in the group, but there are also a handful of very strong youngsters in the mix.
"Kenny (Stelpflug) really did well for us last year, proven by him earning (Horizon League Men's) Newcomer of the Year," Clements said. "Nic and Tim (Halverson) both have a good chance to do what Kenny did for us last year, and those are just our young guys. We still have some good leaders in this group and it should be another good year for all of them."
At last year's league championships, Milwaukee won the 100 butterfly and placed three more in the top-seven and had three in the top-four of the 200 fly. With all of those swimmers gone, it would be easy to assume this could be UWM's weak spot in 2012-13. Not if this year's squad has anything to say about that.
"We lost a very good group of swimmers in the `flys last year," Clements said. "However, we still have very good still here on our campus. Some of them haven't had to swim it much before because of the group we had, but they are more than capable.
"Plus, we've got a lot of guys coming up that have been getting better as they're going through the program. Ryan Finke, Scott Hasksins, Robert Miller - all have been doing well so far and will swim well for us this year."
Looking at the roster, UWM doesn't boast a lot of backstroke specialists this year, but the ones they have are more than able to compete in every meet on the schedule.
Senior Sam Niesen finished league runner-up in the 100 back last year, was third in the 200 back and nearly has both school records. Junior Chris Jenkyns already owns one of the fastest times in school history in the 200 back and sophomore Brian Linzmeyer will look to continue to come on strong after a solid freshman campaign.
"Sam is a very gifted swimmer and he's going to be our anchor in the backstrokes again this year," Clements said. "Chris has done some impressive things in his first two years with us and will only continue to get better and Brian will join the group this year and will continue to grow as the year goes on."
As is the case in many other events, Milwaukee loses two school-record holders in the breaststrokes this year. Just like the other events, the Panthers don't expect much, if any, of a drop off considering who they have waiting in the wings of last year's senior standouts.
"We had two incredible breaststrokers last year that we lost with graduation," Clements said. "You can't replace those two but can fill their spots and we have the talent to do that."
Senior David Dvorak owns some of the fastest times in school history in the 100 breast and swam in the finals of the event at the league meet both of the past two seasons. Add in a slew of freshmen that all had impressive high school careers and UWM might even be stronger in the two events this year.
"We brought in a lot of freshmen who can breaststroke and I'm really excited about what they can do for us," Clements said. "Joseph Chokran, J.J. Melville, Teddy Stackman, Riley Spitzig and Taylor Wisdorf all can contribute for us right away and it's going to be a fast group for us."
Similar to the breaststroke, the Panthers lose a school-record holder in the 200 individual medley, but still maintain more than a healthy amount of talent on this year's team.
"This team has a lot of flexibility to it and it's going to take some time to see who swims in every event," Clements said. "Right now, we know we have some very good swimmers more-than capable to IM for us, but there might be someone that emerges as the season goes on. That's what I love about this team."
Seniors David Dvorak and Caleb Sandvold have the most experience from this year's roster, both placing in the top four of the 100 breast at the Horizon League Championships one year ago. Freshman J.J. Melville also figures to make a big impact early on.
Milwaukee had one of its most memorable diving seasons of late last year and things will only get better for the very young group.
"We had a very good year last year on the boards," Clements said. "We broke a school record and did well at the (league) championships. The exciting part is, we're only going to continue improving."
Now sophomore K.J. Heger broke the school record twice on the three-meter board and was in the finals on both boards, as was classmate Lee Anderson. Fellow sophomore Andy LaFleur finished the season strong last year, taking eighth on the three-meter and winning the consolation round on the one-meter.
Add to the mix freshmen Will Sass, Wisconsin's runner-up at the state meet one year ago, and Andres Villa, an accomplished diver that has done well on both boards and platform, and Milwaukee seems poised to have another record-breaking year in diving.
"It has been a long time coming to take down some of those diving records," Clements said. "With the talent that we have this year, I fully expect to have five or six divers in finals at the league meet next year."
The 2011-12 season truly was one to remember for the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee women's swimming & diving team. The Panthers had a record-breaking season and were crowned Horizon League Champions after a dominating performance at the league meet. But the team is not content after winning the conference title for just the second time in program history and the women are ready to begin their title defense.
"The women are excited to do it again," Milwaukee head coach Kyle Clements said. "They waited so long and finished runner-up so many times; now that it's theirs, they are not letting it go any time soon."
As usual, the Panthers graduated some of their top talent from last season. But, despite the loss of two Horizon League champions, Milwaukee is arguably even more talented at the start of this year than when they won the title last March.
"With the talent that we brought in, we are actually a more talented team than we have ever been," Clements said. "Now, a lot of them are new and they're not as polished yet, but as a collective group this is the most talented I have seen our group. I know the girls have been putting in the work toward this season already and we have the talent to not only not step back, but to continue to step forward. That is what is exciting to me."
Of all events, nowhere do the Panthers lose more from last year's group than in the sprint events. While two of last year's graduates make up the team's top-four times in each sprint event, there really should not be much of a drop off considering this season's squad.
"We lost two of our top sprinters from last year, but Sierra Townsend is going to be the one that holds the sprints down for us." Clements said. "She did a lot of it last year for us, a lot of relays and to save some of our other swimmers from the relays. Sierra is the one that's going to be doing the heavy lifting for us. She will be in every 50 and 100 and a lot of the relays."
While Townsend, who broke the freshman record in the 50 free a year ago, looks to be the anchor at the position, Milwaukee has so much flexibility with its roster this season that individuals who didn't even swim a sprint last year might be leading the team this year.
"Our team has gotten so big and we're so deep that we are going to get a lot of contributions from people who have already been here," Clements said. "Diana Diel, who has been our school-record holder and the won the Horizon League in the 100 fly as a freshman, she's actually going to do a lot of sprint free this year. It's something that she has always had in her, but we've never had to use it because of the upper classmen that we've had. Becky Yokosh, too; she's an upper classmen that can swim sprints but we've just never needed her to."
The Panthers will also get some help from its incoming freshmen, one of the largest and deepest incoming classes in program history.
"We brought in Maggie Maxstadt, who is going to swim a lot of sprints for us this year," Clements said. "She's got the perfect build for it and she has the times to do it. It's going to be a pretty quick group."
Perhaps its most overlooked area from last season, at least from the outside's perspective, Milwaukee actually gained a lot of valuable points in the middle-distance and distance events en route to their league title last year. Senior Karmyn Van Dewettering swam in the final of the 500, 1000 and 1650 freestyle last year and will lead a young but very talented group.
"When it starts getting into the thick of it, you've got to go right to Karmyn," Clements said. "She's been right there. She's going to be right there again. The other distance events you've got Chloe Lewis and Kelly Theis, both have been in the program for more than a year now."
Milwaukee also adds newcomers Abby Duke and Kaela Ropson, both tout impressive high school marks and should be ones to watch as the season progresses.
Milwaukee has been solid in the butterfly events for years and 2012-13 should be no different. Junior Diana Diel leads the way as the school-record holder in the 100 fly and league champion as a freshman. Newcomers last year Diandra Prutton and Sierra Townsend added more depth, and a late-season surge by Mary Kuyvenhoven point to this being another strong year for this group.
"What's going to be really exciting is, we already know what we have in Diana, Diandra and Sierra and Mary and all of our returners. There are a lot of good butterflyers there, but we also added the Wisconsin (high school) state champion in Leah Winckler. She's been swimming really fast and Leah's going to be there for every fly event, especially the sprint fly. You add her to an already veteran group and the flies are going to be tough for us."
The Panthers have continued to produce record-breaking results in the backstroke events for numerous years in a row. Last year, sophomore Becky Yokosh broke both school records and also set the new league standard in the 200 back with an NCAA `B' cut time to cap an impressive season. Milwaukee does lose one of its former backstroke specialists in former school-record holder Danielle Chapman, but there are more newcomers ready to fill those shoes.
"Danielle graduated, but we brought in the No. 2 swimmer out of Iowa and she's going to be able to help us in a lot of events," Clements said. "Kelsey Abbas almost got the school record as a high school senior, she's only about a second or so off. She's going to slide into that role and try to take over right where Danielle left off. I have no doubt in my mind she'll be just fine doing it."
Clements also added newcomer Emily Dean to the talented group that also includes team captain Erika Pliner (sixth in the 200 back at conference last year) and Diandra Prutton (seventh in the 100 back at conference last year).
When it comes to the breaststroke events at UWM, everyone knows both of those events belong to Emily McClellan. The junior shattered both school and league records last year, recording the Horizon League's first-ever NCAA `A' cut times in both events.
After just missing a spot on this past summer's Olympic team and earning a spot on the U.S. roster for the 2013 World University Games, McClellan obviously will grab most of the headlines in both events again this year, but her unique abilities have been helping those around her.
"Emily is Emily. She's only getting faster everyday, which is exciting, but she's pushing everyone else," Clements said. "Lindsey Verhulst swims the breaststroke with her almost every time and finished top-eight in the Horizon League last year. She'll continue to drop time.
"Then you've got Brianna Huth, who swam a lifetime best at the end of the year last year and would have made it back to Horizon League. Emily Blohm is one that has been there before and then Hannah Lucas - she comes in with a time that would be top-eight Horizon League, as well. It's a deep breaststroke group and it's going to be a very quick breaststroke group this year."
McClellan also posted an NCAA `B' cut time in the 200 IM a season ago in earning All-Horizon League First-Team honors and will lock down the event again this year. Diana Diel also had an impressive year, taking fourth at the league meet a year ago as part of a very deep IM group.
"With each new roster, it's a different lineup," Clements said. "When you have Emily McClellan, who swims this at the NCAA Championships, and then you have the others that always do this event - Maggi Beck, Hilary Woldt, Erika Pliner, Hannah Lucas, again her time is a top-eight time coming out of high school, Leah Winckler has a scoring time...we could really take our pick in the two IM."
In the 400 IM, Milwaukee has Beck, who holds the freshman record, and Woldt, who swam with Beck at the league meet a year ago. Chloe Lewis and Emily Blohm also have experience in the event and should be in the mix.
"We are just going to try to figure out the new pieces," Clements said. "This is a very deep roster and we're just trying to piece it all together for the finished product."
Arguably Milwaukee's weakest events last year were the diving events. Now-senior Aubrey Griffiths finished in the top eight on both boards at the league championships, but there was only one other diver on the team last year and Griffiths serves as the team's lone returner this season.
Welcome to the group three exciting freshmen who figure to make a big splash right away and Milwaukee should have a greater impact this year in the event.
"Rachel Margis just broke all Aubrey's old city records right before she got here. She has been a state champion in Wisconsin many times and is going to do very well here," Clements said. "Anna (Percival) and Leah (Hennes), they were two of the top divers in the state of Minnesota last year. (Diving coach) Todd (Hill) is very excited about both of them. There is a lot of potential with this group and is excited to get them out on the boards."