OXFORD, Ohio, March 13. BIG Red did it last year and are poised to repeat in 2002.
Coach Greg Parini's Denison University Big Red women, NCAA Division III champs last season after ending Kenyon's record 17-year reign as No. 1, open defense of their title tomorrow at Miami's Student Recreation Center pool here.
How sweet it must have been for Parini to win a title at last against his old coach, Kenyon's Jim Steen. The Denison headman had been a key member on Steen's teams in the early 1980s, and has four championship rings to his credit. Denison also was runner-up to Kenyon in Y2K so they moved up a notch last season.
In fact, he's the ONLY coach aside from Michigan's Jon Urbancek ever to win an NCAA team title both as a swimmer and a coach, although Urbancek has the
distinction of having been the only person to do it at the same school.
Denison, although it only qualified 11 swimmers to Kenyon's maximum 17 for the "Big Dance," has some heavyweights returning who did major damage at last season's championship.
Foremost is Erin Stanley, who won the 100-200 frees and was runner-up to Kenyon's Beth Galloway in the 50 free. Then there's Tamara Carty, defending champ in the 500-1650 freestyles; Mollie Parrish, 100 fly champ who was third in the 50 free; and Alyssa Heidinger, defending champ in the 100 breast and runner-up in the 200.
Kenyon's returning scorers who were among the Top 3 include Abby Brethauer, third in the 200 back; Betsy Garratt, third in the 100 breast; and Ashley Rowatt, runner-up in the 400 IM.
Kenyon's women are facing an unfamiliar role as they head to Oxford for the start today of the Division III meet — that of NOT being the defending champs. Parini's Big Red took the trophy home after last year's splashing concluded at Buffalo's Flickinger Natatorium, and Kenyon was not at all happy.
In fact, the Lord ladies not only lost their title but did so in the closest finish in meet history. A mere 16 points separated the top two finishers, 588-572.
But as Parini likes to point out, "An inch is as good as a mile."
While Kenyon's championship win streak is history, its 17-consecutive titles is unprecedented in the history of NCAA women's athletics. The Lords' men's team has won every NCAA DIII Championship since 1980 and that too is unsurpassed.
Denison's Big Red competes alongside Kenyon in Ohio's North Coast Athletic Conference, and this season the teams have met thrice — with Kenyon winning on all three occasions. The Lord ladies won the NCAC Relays in October, beat Denison in a dual-meet (126-113) a month later and, most recently, won their 18th-consecutive conference championship last last month.
The two teams are co-NCAA favorites again, but squads from Emory, Johns Hopkins and Williams College will likely figure into the structure of this season's Top Five too. Atlanta's Emory has 14 swimmers qualified while Williams' Ephs will bring 12 and Hopkins eight.
On an individual basis look for Kenyon sophomore Galloway to be a major factor. Besides being defending 50 free champion she owns this season's
best time of 23.49 too. She was second in the 100 free last season to Denison's Stanley. The Lords' Agnese Ozolina cannot be overlooked in the sprints, either. She has the season's best mark in the 200 free (1:52.05) and second-best in the 100 (51.53).
Denison will counter with distance-specialist Carty and her teammate, breaststroker Heidinger, who is back to defend her 100 title and is expected to contend for top honors again this year in the 200. Kenyon's Garratt and Hopkins' Nontawan Benja-Athon will be Heidinger's prime challengers.
In the butterfly, Denison's Parrish will be looking for a second-straight 100 title and is seeded No. 1. However, she will likely be pushed by Kenyon's Madeline Courtney-Brooks, North Central's Maureen Szweda and Amherst College's Morgan Bayer.
Kenyon is strong again in the individual medleys and is led by Rowatt, 400 runner-up. Wooster's Liz Whittman, however, stands ready to challenge as she has the season's top time of 2:05.67 for the 200 medley — faster than last year's winning 2:06.23.
The relay events, which award double team points, will again be of utmost import. Last season Parini's Big Red won four of five races and set meet records in the 400 medley and 800 free relays. Kenyon's only relay win came in the 400 free and these two schools own the Nos. 1 and 2 positions in all five relay events this season.
Both coaches say they expect another close meet. Although the site is Miami's "neutral" pool, its proximity to both Denison and Kenyon should allow for plenty of fans from both schools to view the competition "up close and personal."
As for our selection — well, naw, it's just too close to call.
– Bill Bell