Irish face toughest test of season
By NOREEN GILLESPIE
Holding onto an undefeated dual meet record, the women's swimming and diving team will finish off its dual meet season this weekend, and could leave the loss column reading zero.
There's just one problem: they have to face their two toughest opponents in the final 72 hours of the dual meet season.
Battling against No. 16-ranked Northwestern tonight and traveling to Ann Arbor to face No.17 University of Michigan Saturday, neither meet will be an easy task for the Irish.
That means it's time for a showdown.
"I think these are two teams that are the best in the Big Ten conference," said Irish head coach Bailey Weathers. "There's some rivalry there in terms ofwanting to be among the better teams in the country."
Notre Dame surged to its highest national ranking in history earlier this season when the team checked in at No. 13. But with Northwestern and Michigan knocking on the door, Notre Dame will have to rely on depth to win both meets.
Both competitions last year ended in close point margins. But with the return ofsenior sprinter Carrie Nixon, and with standout performances all season from senior backstroker Kelly Hecking, breastrokers Alison Lloyd and Laurie Musgrave, and divers Heather Mattingly and Meghan Perry-Eaton, the Irish have the abilityto put together a strong, versatile and deep lineup.
"Depth is our strength," Weathers said. "What we have to do against a team like Northwestern or Michigan is if they win the event, go two, three and four to allow them to only get a few points out of the thing."
The depth of the Notre Dame squad is enough to make both Northwestern and Michigan a little bit nervous going into the weekend. The Wildcats, who stand at 4-0-1 on the season, know that it's going to take more than a few first place finishes to stop the Irish.
"Everyone's going to have to come through," said Northwestern head coach Jimmy Tierney. "Our top-end athletes will have to try their best and take as many wins as we can — but that's not always enough to beat good teams like this."
Northwestern has been led all season by strong performances from junior Susie Sample in the breastroke events, junior Carmen Cosgrove in the butterfly events and freshman Ashley Carter from the boards. Sweeping the butterfly events in last year's decision, the 100-yard butterfly will probably be another problem spot for the Irish tonight.
Michigan enters the weekend's competition slightly battle-weary, with four athletes sidelined from competition. Samantha Arsenault, a 2000 gold medal winner at the Sydney Olympics, was benched earlier this season with a shoulder injury.
Also, junior breastroker Traci Valasko is sidelined with a knee inury, junior distance swimmer Janay Karlson is out because of illness, and Mara Sveum had to leave the Michigan team due to illness.
The injuries leave the Wolverines with only 19 swimmers left to compete — badly bruising the team's depth.
"We don't have the luxury of a large squad to be able to move people around," said Michigan coach Jim Richardson. "We've got a small team, and swim the same events every week. With that number of athletes, we just don't have that flexibility."
Still, the Wolverines will pose a threat with freshman Amy McCollough, who has consistently logged first place in the distance freestyle events for Michigan. Sophomore Emily Clare-Fenn has also been consistent in the distance events. Sophomore Kelli Stein is strong in the breastroke, and sophomore Sarah Johnson has been strong in the 200-yard individual medley.
After tonight's face-off with Northwestern, the Wildcats will travel north to swim Michigan Friday, before the Wolverines compete against Notre Dame Saturday. It's the toughest weekend of the year for all three teams, intended to test the swimmers before championship season commences at the end of February.
But while the Irish have a slight advantage heading into both meets, the team won't be taking any one race for granted.
"We're a good enough team there's some room for error," Weathers said. "But if we're flat as a team, that's not the kind of error we can overcome. We need to be able to race. Both teams have different strengths — what works for us one day is not going to work the next."
The Northwestern vs. Notre Dame meet begins at Rolfs Aquatics Center at 5 p.m., and Saturday's meet at Michigan begins at 3 p.m.
All Sports Stories for Thursday, January 31, 2002