The University of Richmond's women's swimming team opens its season tomorrow night at LaSalle University - the first time the Spiders have swum against an Atlantic-10 team during the regular season in five years.
As the team practiced last week in the Robins Center Natatorium, a board marking the team's eight-consecutive A-10 championships had an empty third row waiting to be broken into. But head coach Matt Barany said repeatedly that this year's expectations were new, because each year saw a fresh team that had yet to win a championship together.
"Just because we won eight [A-10 championships] doesn't mean we train easy," Barany said, mentioning that the 26-week season didn't even afford the swimmers a Fall Break. "We want the same result at the end of the year. We want to win, for this team, their first A-10 championship."
The preseason poll among the league's head coaches predicted Richmond would place second at the 2010 A-10 championship in February behind Fordham University, which finished second last season. Senior captain Alex Helland said it had been an eye-opener to not be predicted to win for the first time since she had been at Richmond, but that the team was excited to be the underdog and was already using the poll as fuel during practice.
With last year's graduation of Lauren Beaudreau - one of the most decorated swimmers in Richmond and A-10 history, according to the Richmond athletic Web site - Barany compared the team to a building receiving new levels. Many swimmers, including juniors and seniors, will try new events, and new athletes will step into leadership roles.
"The roles of the team are somewhat yet to be determined," Barany said. "The personality is to be determined. ... Just as a team works to determine personality, I have to work to determine what our strongest lineup is going to be."
Barany anticipates seasoned swimmers to deliver as upperclassmen, citing the natural maturation of athletes as they gain confidence from the experience of knowing what their coaches and teammates expect from them. He said senior captains Helland and Katie Sieben and junior Nicole LePere had already shown strong leadership in past years' performances.
Sieben made it to the NCAA championship as a sophomore for the 100-yard butterfly, Helland set the A-10 record in the 100-yard backstroke last season, and LePere set the school and A-10 record for the 200-yard backstroke.
Summer training at Richmond proved that LePere could also sprint freestyle - meaning that she will try the 50-yard freestyle this season, Barany said. Sieben and senior Beth Platt will also try new events.
"This year won't be a rerun of last year," Barany said. "That's for sure."
The team's goal is to win all five relays at A-10s, after winning four relays last year, Helland said. She listed relays as a strong point for the team because of its depth and breadth, which she attributed to Barany's recruiting. Qualifying relays for the NCAA championship - unprecedented in program history - is another team goal to challenge itself, Sieben wrote in an e-mail.
The team can draw from 18 swimmers this year - the maximum roster for A-10s - after relying on a smaller squad during past years. Helland said this year's team was also different because of the greater number of underclassmen, compared with past teams that had comprised mostly upperclassmen.
The underclassmen have already begun to show impressive leadership during practice, Helland said. After being one of those underclassmen last year, junior Natalie Lewis was voted as the team's third captain.
Although Richmond doesn't usually swim against A-10 teams during the regular season in favor of a more challenging schedule, Barany said conference competition had been increasing, with a different team finishing second at A-10s each of his past four seasons coaching.
Fordham and other programs have also been allocating more money to their swimming programs, he said.
"We know there are other competitive teams out there that will challenge us, but it just motivates us to work even harder and prove that we are still the best," Sieben said. "We always rise to challenges, and this year won't be any different."
Having fun while challenging each other during practice are the two keys to success, Sieben said. They all may have individual weaknesses but are not afraid to work on them during practice.
There are more questions than answers right now, Barany said, but it's only week nine. The team doesn't start with a theme, but one usually develops. Last year's was selflessness - putting team success before individual success - but Barany said to check back in three months to find out the 2009-2010 theme.
"Each year will reveal a new lesson, and we don't know what it's going to be," Barany said.
The Spiders' dual meet against LaSalle and Villanova University will begin at 5 p.m. tomorrow in Philadelphia, Pa. Their first and only home meet will be Jan. 15 against The College of William & Mary.
Contact staff writer Maura Bogue at firstname.lastname@example.org