AUBURN, Ala., Jan. 24. TO be the champ, you've got to beat the champ.
That's the mission facing Florida Coach Greg Troy's women's and men's swimming and diving teams this evening at the James E. Martin Aquatic Center here, as Florida takes on the nation's top-ranked women's team and its No. 2 men's team in a key dual meet.
Auburn's women, defending NCAA Division 1 titleists, are coached by former Tiger All-America and Southeastern Conference backstroke champ David Marsh, as are the men.
Similarly, Florida's defending SEC women's champs and No. 2-ranked nationally, plus the Gator men, No. 6, are both are guided by Troy, last year's SEC women's Coach of the Year.
The meet begins at 6 PM.
The Auburn women have not lost a dual meet in more than three-and-a-half years and hold a six-year winning streak over the Gators. Meanwhile, the Auburn men have a 12-meet win streak of their own, including three straight over Florida.
"Anytime you can match up No. 1 vs. No. 2 in any sport, it makes for an exciting, competitive setting," Marsh said. "The Florida women’s team has earned that ranking not only through their top-level athletes, but also their depth."
The Gators are led by junior All-America and defending SEC 1650 champ Sara McLarty, national leader in the 1000 free and among the Top 5 in the 500 and 1650 too as well as among the Top 10 in the 200 fly and 400 IM.
In addition, the Gators feature a talented froshwoman breaststroker in German national junior team member Vipa Bernhardt, who ranks second nationally in the 200 (Florida -record 2:11.74 against Georgia last year).
Another Gator ranked among the national leaders is rookie Jamie Reid in the backstrokes, while sophomore Meredith Green (flys, IMs); Rebecca Harper (defending SEC 200 fly champ and a strong 100 flyer too); sprinter Chantal Gibney, South African Olympian Renate duPlessis (sprint backstroke, fly) and sprinter-flyer Cara Teague provide Florida with a not inconsiderable amount of depth and talent.
Auburn's women — led by double-defnding NCAA champ/ American record-holder Maggie Bowen (200 IM) and Commonwealth Games 200 IM gold medalist Kirsty Coventry (IMs, backstrokes) — have taken every step necessary up to this point to defend their national title.
The Lady Tigers have collected eight automatic NCAA qualifying times and 35 provisional times from 15 different women. Florida has also had a successful early season, achieving six automatic times and 33 provisional cuts.
"They [Florida] bring in the best distance group in the nation and we are hoping to split them up. But most likely, we will have to gain our points in a variety of other events," Marsh noted.
That should not prove to be an insurmountable problem as Auburn will have at least two provisional or automatic NCAA times in every individual event but two, and have as many as five times in two races.
"I think this meet gives both Florida and us a good look at one another," AU Co-head women’s Coach Kim Brackin added. "Both teams are going to be ready to race. There is a strong tradition and I think it will give both teams a chance to see the grit from top to bottom that each team has. For Florida, it is a great chance to get used to our pool that they will be swimming in for the two biggest meets of the season (SECs and NCAA Championships)."
Bowen is defending NCAA champ in both individual medleys and was runner-up to Stanford's Tara Kirk in the 100 breast. Coventry was runner-up to Cal's Natalie Coughlin in the 200 back and her 1:54.37 was a Tiger record and No. 2 all-time on the SEC list.
She made remarkable strides for never having swum in a yards pool (or even having seen one!) before September of 2001; and also having to adapt to an entirely different training regimen and the American collegiate lifestyle (she's a native of Zimbabwe).
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On the men’s side, the Tigers and Gators have combined to win 11 out of the last 12 SEC championships and, here again, Auburn is defending champ. This season the two teams seem to be holding to form. In the individual medleys, Auburn has three men in the top twenty of each distance on the NCAA list, including freshman national leader George Bovel, a Trinidadian Olympian and World Championship finalist. But once again, the Gators have an answer in another event as Carlos Jayme ranks among the Top Eight in the two sprint freestyle events.
"Florida has SEC- and NCAA-caliber athletes in every event throughout their lineup, including the defending NCAA 200 free champ [Adam Sioui]," Marsh said. "The match-ups in the freestyle events should be some great contests for us against Carlos Jayme. The 400 IM features two of the best 400 IMers in the nation with our Eric Shanteau and Florida's Ryan Lochte [who set a meet record en route to gold in the 200 IM at last weekend's Dallas Morning News Classic]. This meet is likely to come down to the last relay and should make for an exciting evening of not only SEC and NCAA level, but world-class level swimming."
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With the temperature outside expected to be in the 30s for most of the day, the Tigers are expecting the senior night atmosphere to heat the Martin Aquatics Center as they say goodbye to two women and nine men seniors, including Bowen, Cassidy Maxwell, Pat Calhoun, Justin Caron, James Galloway, Joe Gonzales, Andy Haidinyak, Matt Kidd and Brad Knueven. All will be honored in a pre-meet ceremony.
"This senior class has been one of the most dedicated and committed classes in the history of our program," Marsh said. "The seven guys have, to a man, put in their best year of training this year, and that is a real testament to their character. On the women’s side, the women have taken Auburn University athletics to where it has never been. The signing of Cassidy Maxwell as the national high school swimmer of the year to the performance of Maggie Bowen at the NCAA and world level has been the reason for the success."
As a prominent SEC men's hoops coach once observed (albeit in a rather different context): "It's gonna be another ball-burner."
– Bill Bell