Richmond’s swimming and diving team extended its streak of consecutive Atlantic 10 Conference Championships to five last weekend, adding to the dynasty that has won 13 of the previous 14 conference championships.
The Spiders traveled to Geneva, Ohio, anticipating a tightly contested meet. That premonition held true until the final day of the conference championships, when the Spiders distanced themselves from the Massachusetts Minutewomen and the Duquesne Dukes, who finished second and third, respectively.
Richmond’s swimming and diving team has been regarded highly for years, with some Atlantic 10 teams even refusing to hold meets against the Spiders in the past, head coach Matt Barany said. This year the competition was stiffer than in years past, as the conference welcomed Davidson one year after George Mason joined.
“We went to Fordham in January and they beat us,” Barany said. “I don’t think I can remember the last time an A-10 team beat us before this January meet.
“After we lost that meet I told the girls, ‘Hey, we’re not the favorites anymore. The target isn’t on us anymore. It’s on Fordham.”
With more teams joining the conference, the distribution of points across the top teams in the conference was more noticeable when compared with the final scores of years past.
“It splits up the pie of points,” Barany said. “Normally we score around 700 points but now we know you only need to score 600 points to win. With Davidson and George Mason now in the conference it really does change the layout of our sport, maybe more than in some other sports.”
Richmond’s 200-yard medley relay team, which is typically a strength of the Spiders’, placed first with a time of one minute and 40 seconds. This year the team included Maggie Pope, Kelley Yang, Natalya Ares and Annie Lane.
“In the past we’ve always wanted to win five relays,” Barany said. “This season we did not really make that a primary focus because we knew the relays were going to be so hard. We always aim to win all the relays whereas other schools aim to win just one, so it changes our approach.”
The Spiders were also able to capitalize on individual performances as junior Melissa Ross earned a gold medal, winning the 200-meter fly with a time of 2:00.27. She was just one-tenth of a second away from breaking the school record, which is currently held by teammate and multiple-medal winner Kelley Yang.
“Before our race at finals, she came up to me and said, ‘Melissa, you need to break my record. I want you to break it,’ and I went for it.” Ross said. “It would be really cool to do that because Kelley is such a fantastic swimmer and I admire her butterfly so much, so to be able to be as close to that record as I am is really exciting.”
On the diving side of the events, Irina Chiuli placed first in the women’s 3m diving event and third in the 1m event, an event where divers are scored based on their ability to complete technically sound dives from various distances. Chiuli was awarded the A-10 Outstanding Female Diver award and will be joined by freshman Laura Rokop in Buffalo, New York, in March as the pair looks to qualify for the NCAA Swimming and Diving Championships.
Barany attributed the record-threatening numbers and the overall team success to being a well-rounded team, albeit with no noticeable standouts, on both the swimming and diving fronts.
“I think its hard work by all of the girls on the team, and I think that’s probably what was different about this one,” he said. “In the past we’ve had outright superstars. I don’t think this group has a single identifying superstar. I think so much of what they do is they just work hard.”
Freshman Annie Lane, who was named the A-10 Outstanding Rookie performer, was the first freshman to win an individual gold medal at the meet when she completed her 100-yard butterfly in 1:02.61. She was also part of the four medal winning relays.
“I went in not with the expectation of winning, but I wanted to go in and do the best that I could and the way it all fell into place and it was really cool to watch,” Lane said.
The Spiders had an added incentive this season after the devastating loss of former team member Natalie Lewis, who was killed in a tragic hot-air balloon accident along with assistant basketball coach Ginny Doyle on May 9, 2014.
“With the death of Ginny and Natalie this summer it was a year that was unlike any other for both myself and the girls,” Barany said. “Natalie was my friend, and to win it this way, under these circumstances was important for us.”
The Spiders ended the weekend with four relay medals and eight individual medals to continue their impressive run atop the conference.
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