AZUSA, Calif.-- On October 12 the Azusa Pacific women’s swimming and diving team kicks off its fifth season at the Pacific Coast Swimming Conference (PCSC) relays and pentathlon. But unlike the program’s previous four years, which saw the Cougars post a pair of top-5 finishes at the NAIA national championships, this season Azusa Pacific has no national championship to compete for, with the program entering candidacy year two of its transition to NCAA Division II membership.
In a sport like swimming, where everything is geared towards peaking at the final meet, typically a national championship meet, a two-year window without a title to compete for means that the Cougars will have to utilize a different approach; an approach that aims to preparing the program for the 2014-15 season when the school will be eligible to compete in the NCAA postseason.
“These next two years are years that we’re gearing up for Division II competition and being able to compete nationally. We will shoot for personal bests and look at the DII national qualifying times and try to see how many girls we can get in for that category,” said head coach Tim Kyle.
But while there is no national championship on the horizon for this year’s squad, the Cougars still have a championship meet they’re gearing towards. In the last four year’s Azusa Pacific has been a member of the PCSC, a swimming conference that consists of programs from NCAA Division I, II, and III, and also includes NAIA schools. The eclectic 13-team league has the likes of Pepperdine, Alaska Fairbanks, UC San Diego, and California Baptist.
Every year the conference holds its championship meet just before nationals. Teams usually use the meet as a springboard to nationals, where they’ll try to get any last minute qualifiers before tapering down for the big contest. This season that meet is the Cougars’ national championship, and everything they do is aimed towards it.
“Our goal is to rise in the ranks of the PCSC and our training should take us to the end result. I firmly believe that if we’re on task it will take us to the level we end up at, and hopefully that’s a good finish,” said Kyle.
“The team is a little bigger and I think that’s a good thing. They have to push and a lot of them are asking about relay teams, and that’s a driving factor. They want to be a part of what we’re doing. The season looks good and I’m excited about the direction we’re going in. We’ve been going off what campus pastor Coba Canales talked about, and that’s being consistent. That’s been our motto for training and team leadership. I think that’s going to stumble over into us being the best team that we can.”
The Cougars return the majority of their roster from last year’s fifth place finish at the NAIA national championships. Kassi Duncan, the team’s only 2012 All-American, returns after landing on the podium with a pair of third place finishes in the 1-meter and 3-meter boards. Quinn Robertson and Angela Kanigowski lead a strong group sprinters, while Cameron Hagen enters her third year with the program after posting a strong sophomore season. Simone Garcia is back for her senior season, already the record holder in the 200 and 400 IM, while fellow senior Malerie Morgan returns, looking to improve on her program-record times in the 100 and 200 back.
Distance specialist Victoria Hodge had an impressive freshman year, and comes back for her second season, while Alyssa Hickman returns after qualifying in three individual events at last year’s championships.
“We have a strong group of returners and I really think that right now they’re setting the groundwork for what’s to be expected. They’re showing the level that some of the incoming freshmen need to be geared towards. Those girls are going to be key members of what we do,” said Kyle.
The team, however, will be without Tink Gibb’s services for the upcoming season, as the Glendora native is redshirting. Gibb placed in the top-8 in every event she swam in at last year’s NAIA championships, and became the program’s first swimmer to earn NAIA Swimmer of the Month honors as a junior.
Any successful swim team needs a strong group of sprinters. Good thing for Azusa Pacific the team has it in spades. Robertson and Kanigowski are already record holders as Robertson broke the school’s 50 free mark at the NAIA championships with a time of 23.78, good for 7th place, while Kanigowski owns the 100 breast record with a time of 1:05.85. Robertson and Kanigowski each finished as top-three swimmers in the 50 and 100 free, and were members of each of the team’s free relays. The Cougars’, however, have a bit of unknown as Gibb’s redshirt leaves a few openings.
Hoping to fill the void will be a pair of freshmen in Jazminne Robles and Erica Knudsen. Robles is a talented, but raw swimmer out of Fontana, while Knudsen is one of the team’s top newcomers. Cal State East Bay transfer Madelyn Mooers will also be in the mix.
“Our team is based off a sprint group. If you look at the points you have to have a strong spring group. The relays and a lot of the scoring events are based off sprinting,” said Kyle. “I think we’re talented, we’re down without Gibb, but we have a couple freshmen that will fill in. Robertson was definitely one of our fastest last year and Kanigowski is one of the fastest girls. Knudsen is with a bright future and Robles has raw talent that we’re trying to shape. Madelyn Mooers has speed and she’ll definitely help out.”
While sprinters are essential to success, without a balanced roster a team has little chance at winning on a regular basis, which bodes well for the Cougars. Azusa Pacific returns its top swimmers in the backstroke, breaststroke, distance, and medley.
In the IM Garcia leads the way. Last year she swam in some of the toughest events, and scored well for the Cougars. She posted the team’s top times in the 200 and 400 IM, and had the second fastest times in the 200 breast and 100 fly.
“Simone is always someone that’s consistent and accountable. She’s very driven and she’s dedicated to the sport and loves to swim. She’s going to be faster this year. We always ask her to swim the toughest events (200 and 400 IM) and she gets after it and does whatever we ask of her,” said Kyle.
Hagen is the team’s top breaststroker, posting a school-record in the 200 breast (2:25.48), and after an impressive sophomore season is primed to be one of the team’s top upperclassmen. Kanigowski, who notched the Cougars’ top-time in the 100 breast (1:05.85), will look to give the team depth across the board.
“Kanigowski and Hagen are good breaststrokers. They’re very focused and work hard. Hagen has some personal goals that she wants to meet. She’s always a high scorer for our breast stroke events and she’s going to do very well,” said Kyle.
In the backstroke Morgan leads the way as the Upland native, who is in Azusa Pacific’s MBA program, is the record holder in the 100 and 200 back. She’ll be joined by freshman Anna Eckberg.
“Eckberg is a good backstroker, but she’s also a talented middle distance swimmer. She has a good club background and she’s really taken on a freshman leadership role. Everyone is noticing her discipline and ability,” said Kyle.
In the distance events Hodge will be the team’s go-to swimmer. Last year as a true freshman she scored well at nationals, and comes into her second season with the program with a full collegiate season under her belt. The Cougars also bring in a strong freshman in Mikaela Fuller.
“Our distance girls are outstanding. Hodge scored a lot of points at nationals last year. We expect a lot of good things from Fuller. She’s an over the top hard worker and she’s driven to do very well for the next four years for us,” said Kyle.
Last year Duncan was Azusa Pacific’s only competitor to place in the top-3 at nationals. She posted third place scores in the 1-meter and 3-meter boards, breaking the school-record in the 3-meter with a total of 233.30. This season she’ll be joined by two new teammates, hoping to bolster the Cougars’ production in the diving portion of the meets.
Robyn Dozier, a transfer from Grossmont College, did well at the JC meet last year, while incoming freshman Bridget Rossi will look to push the two upperclassmen.
“Duncan was an All-American last year and she’s returning and doing well. Dozier brings a level of experience, while Rossi is going to add to our point total with her dives. It’s a good outlook for diving. I think we’re better and stronger,” said Kyle.