HARRISONBURG, Va., February 15, 2012- On February 25 of last year, three days into the 2011 CAA Swim and Dive Championships, the James Madison Dukes fell from their top spot into second place. They had led the entire meet to that point, so they needed to make a strong case in the final events to take back the lead. On the final day of competition, with help from a first place finish in the 100-yard freestyle by Eva Hannesdottir (Seltjarnarnes, Iceland/Kvennaskolinn), they broke five school records in their effort to win their first CAA title since 2001.
The team had proven to be a top team in the conference, jumping two places higher in the standings each year at the Championships since its ninth place finish in 2007. So, 2011 was the year to be number one and the Dukes were ready to call themselves champions. But even 12 gutty record-breaking performances weren’t enough to trump the conference-dominating Towson Tigers, who ultimately came out on top.
Although the hope was to win the CAA Championships, the expectation was to improve. And that’s exactly what the Dukes did. Hannesdottir finished the meet fourth overall, collecting points from her win in the 100-yard freestyle along with a strong finish in the 200 free and four record-breaking relays. Andrea Criscuolo (Point Pleasant, N.J./Point Pleasant) finished second in the 100-yard butterfly and joined the effort in the relays. Nicole Jotso (Suffern, N.Y./Suffern) took the top spot in the 3-meter board, and all four JMU divers finished in the top six. Kimberly Helfrich (Fort Belvoir, Va./West Springfield) and Jotso placed fourth and fifth, respectively, in the 1-meter dive. Each of these finishes was marquee in the Dukes earning second place.
Considering the high achievements at the meet, Head Coach Samantha Smith was optimistic about the results and how her team would respond coming into this season. “Obviously it’s nice to be at the top of the list, but there was definitely a huge sense of accomplishment [last year],” she explained. “Our main focus was and always has been, ‘Can we be the very best team that JMU has ever had’?”
And for Smith, that doesn’t mean implementing radical changes. “We talk a lot about not being champions, but having championship habits,” she said. “When you practice your expectations all year long, you’re not throwing anybody for a loop. We’re just asking them to do what they’ve done all year long and watch their hard work pay off.” The game plan for her squad is simple: see a challenge, make a decision to be great and then execute it. This year, the Dukes have used this mantra to produce one of their best seasons ever. Undefeated in the CAA and 13-2 overall, the team beat two dominating swim programs in West Virginia and Rutgers this season, the latter in a decisive 161-139 victory on January 20.
However, if you asked the Dukes who their biggest competitor is for the CAA Championships, they would say themselves. The Dukes focus on what they can control in their own pool and that’s it. “Watching other teams has never been a motivating force for us. [It] has really been pretty internal as a group of women that gets in the water every single day,” explained Smith. Even at meets, “We don’t do a whole lot of scoreboard watching.” It’s an unusual approach in a sport where less than a nanosecond can determine the fate of the whole team, but for the Dukes, this system is not only effective, but also very much embraced. Senior swimmer and co-captain Lauren Broussard (La Place, La./Mount Carmel Academy) said, “We literally block everybody out. It is all about us and what we are doing as a unit and as one team. Last year we had the goal to win [at CAA’s] but at the same time we made a really big deal about not focusing on a single other team.”
At the CAA Championships this year, the Dukes will use this internal drive and take advantage of their depth as a team to cumulate points. “We don’t have the luxury to be a great team and only have 90% of our team contributing to the effort. Everyone’s got to be a part of the movement forward,” said Smith. That movement not only includes contributions from swimmers and divers new to the collegiate level, but it relies on them. The freshmen have had big shoes to fill, but they have not disappointed. All of them have bought into the united system in place and are always pushing each other to be better for the team. Sin Hye Won (Springfield, Va./West Springfield), Aimee Hooper (Clifton Park, N.Y./Shenendehowa) and Alex Savage (Carrolton, Tx./Lewisville Hebron) are just three of the top freshmen this season who are expected to have stellar performances in the postseason. Won has proven to be an asset in the 200-yard medley relay team, that she shares with fellow freshman standout Susanne Gingher (Boalsburg, Pa./State College Area). Hooper brings versatility to the team, competing in several events each meet, including the freestyle, fly and individual medley. And finally, Savage has already become one of the Dukes’ best divers this season.
Unabashedly, Broussard said that on deck, the team is more than just very spirited. “We’re so obnoxious,” she said. “It’s true! [That] usually throws off a lot of teams. That’s one of our strong suites.” Being loud on deck is a trait JMU takes a lot of pride in and puts a lot of faith in. When asked if that obnoxiousness could bring the team a championship this year, Broussard didn’t hesitate: “Oh yeah.”
Each JMU swimmer and diver will be counted on to contribute points so the team can have its best meet of the season. Expect broken records, close races and a rowdy crew of JMU swimmers and divers at the Jim McKay Natatorium from February 22-25. The team will bring talent, fight, pep and most importantly, drive. They’re ready. As Broussard stated: “We want it. We really, really want it.”