NCAA WOMEN’S DIVISION I CHAMPS: Auburn Comes from Behind to Win a Thriller

By Chris J. Starrs

ATHENS, Georgia, March 18. IN a dazzling display of depth and fortitude – plus some timely assistance from Arizona – Auburn won its fourth NCAA Women’s Division I Swimming and Diving Championship in the last five years Saturday night at the Gabrielsen Natatorium on the campus of the University of Georgia.

Coming into the final day of the three-day championships, the Tigers trailed defending national champion Georgia by 53 points, but outscored the Bulldogs 192-136 to take the title by a 518.5-515.5 score.

“I have never experienced anything that thrilling,” said Auburn coach David Marsh. “That’s the best day we’ve ever had in Auburn swimming. We didn’t have that great a morning, but we just came alive. Our passion paid off. One after another, we performed.”

“It’s huge for us, but at the same time we can’t focus on any other team but ourselves,” added Hayley Peirsol. “If you get too wrapped up in that, you lose sight of what you’re really here for. This has just been really fun and it’s a great way to end the meet, no matter what happens.”

Although Arizona finished a distant third with 415 points, the Wildcats’ 400-yard freestyle relay team – Courtney Cashion, Jenna Gresdal, Whitney Myers and Lacey Nymeyer – narrowly topped Georgia in the final event to give Auburn the edge. Auburn came into the 21st and last event with a five-point lead over Georgia, which had to either win the event (and the 40 points that went with it) or best the Tigers by at least three places.

But it was not to be as Arizona’s Myers and Nymeyer overcame a quick start by Georgia’s Mary DeScenza and a swift final leg by Kara Lynn Joyce to finish in a NCAA-record time of 3:12.77. The Bulldogs also bested the American record with a time of 3:13.38. The previous national record was 3:13.47, set by Georgia in 2005. In addition to spoiling Georgia’s shot at the NCAA crown, the Wildcats’ relay team also denied the Bulldogs their third consecutive 400 relay championship. Auburn came in third in the 400-yard freestyle relay in a time of 3:15.

“We knew Arizona was the team to beat,” said Georgia’s Tricia Harm, who swam the second leg of the relay. “We had a chance to win and that’s all you can ask for. The American record is great and we’re happy with it, but it’s still hard to go out like that.”

Auburn, which came into Saturday night’s finals with six swimmers and one relay team qualified for championship events (and another eight competitors qualified for consolation finals), got the night off to a promising start when Hayley Peirsol won the 1,650-yard freestyle in a pool-record 15:49.48, bettering SMU’s Flavia Rigamonti (15:54.67) and Auburn’s Adrienne Binder (15:57.64), who set the previous pool mark of 15:51.70 in 2004.

With three qualifiers in the top 16 of the event, the Tigers picked up 36 points to Georgia’s 21, and Auburn moved closer to Georgia after the 200-backstroke, which California’s Helen Silver won in a pool record time of 1:53.01 (besting the previous standard of 1:53.15, set by Auburn’s Kristy Coventry in 2004). Georgia’s Aleksandra Putra was second at 1:54.59 and Kelly Harrigan of Rutgers finished third at 1:54.77.

After two events, Auburn had scored 75 points while Georgia tallied 38 points, bringing the score to 416-405 in favor of the Bulldogs. The two teams were knotted at 436 after the 100-yard freestyle, which Georgia’s Joyce won in a Gabrielsen Natatorium time of 47.41, capturing her third consecutive title in the event and topping the pool record of 48.05, set by Martina Moracova of SMU in 1999.

Auburn again had three competitors in the top 16, amassing 31 points to Georgia’s 21. Arizona’s Nymeyer was second at 48.43 while California’s Silver finished third at 48.47.

The Tigers took the lead for good after the 200-yard breaststroke, which Rebecca Soni of Southern Cal won in a time of 2:09.37. Florida’s Vipa Bernhardt was second at 2:10.37 and Auburn’s Alicia Jensen came in third at 2:10.81. The Tigers had three swimmers in the event, and picked up 33.5 points while Georgia managed but 11.5, giving Auburn a 469.5-447.5 advantage.

DeScenza gave the Bulldog faithful a glimmer of hope and made NCAA history in the process, winning the 200-yard butterfly in a time of 1:53.78, the fourth time she captured the event, tying Mary T. Meagher of California, who won the 200-yard butterfly in 1983, 1985, 1986 and 1987. DeScenza is the only swimmer in NCAA history to win the event in four consecutive years.

UCLA’s Kimberly Vandenberg finished second at 1:56.02 while Arizona’s Myers was third at 1:56.26.DeScenza’s victory put Georgia to within five points of Auburn, heading into the decisive meet-ending 400-yard freestyle relay.

But before the relay could begin, the capacity crowd waited some 40 minutes through the platform diving finals, which was won by Kentucky’s Taryn Ignacio, who scored 335.30 points. Hawaii’s Rui Wang was second with 320 points and Indiana’s 317.05 points.

“I didn’t expect anything,” said Ignacio. “I just tried to stay calm and focus on each dive. I was just happy to be in the finals.”

Georgia finished the weekend with eight titles, while Arizona had five and Auburn garnered two. Southern Cal had three, California had two and Kentucky captured one crown.

Georgia’s Joyce won titles in the 50-yard freestyle, the 200-yard freestyle and the 100-yard freestyle, as well as the 200-yard medley relay and the 800-yard freestyle relay. DeScenza earned championships in the 100-yard butterfly, the 200-yard butterfly and the relays. Arizona’s Myers picked up two titles, winning the 200-yard individual medley and the 400-yard individual medley, and Southern Cal’s Blythe Hartley won the 1-meter and 3-meter diving events, capturing the latter for the second consecutive year.

At the conclusion of the championships, Georgia’s Jack Bauerle was named Swimming Coach of the Year while Georgia’s Joyce was Swimmer of the Year. Southern Cal’s Hongping Li was Diving Coach of the Year and Hartley was Diver of the Year.

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