Despite the many strengths exhibited by the UC Davis women’s swimming and diving squad in 2012-13, all bets are off when the Mountain Pacific Sports Federation Championships get under way Wednesday.
That’s because there are some variables working against the Aggies: the confident composure expected of reigning champions, the nerves of young would-be champions and the ever-changing criteria used by diving judges.
But UCD has one thing it can rely on: “a whole lot of depth,” said Aggie head coach Barbara Jahn.
“We may not get a whole lot of first places, but in a championship format like this — if you’ve got five or six people who are scoring substantially — it’s the depth that’s going to make it or break it,” she added.
The 2012-13 campaign was certainly a convincing display of depth by the locals, who dominated eight straight opponents to finish at 8-2 in dual meets. UCD was eighth in the most recent CollegeSwimming.com Mid-Major Rankings.
But the true evaluation begins Wednesday as the four-day MPSF meet opens at East Los Angeles College in Monterey Park. There, the Aggies will attempt to reclaim the conference title they last received in 2009-10.
The venue is familiar to UCD’s swimmers, as it was the battleground for last season’s conference showdown. The Aggies recorded 546 points, solidifying a third-place finish behind champion BYU and runner-up UC Santa Barbara.
The same two rivals that bested UCD at last season’s meet are expected to once more pose a threat to the locals’ championship aspirations. Jahn said she is also cautious of the ability of Hawaii, a newcomer to the conference pool.
But the Aggies are bolstered by seniors Morgan Lee, Grace Benefield and Bridget Bugbee. The experienced swimmers assisted the MPSF title grab in 2009-10, and have a final opportunity to bring home another win.
“We’ve got a lot of veterans on the team,” said Jahn, who has been at the UCD helm for four decades. “They know what the conference championships feel like, they know what they need to do to get ready for it.”
The cast of Aggies has mostly been altered since the times of previous conference glory. But that’s not necessarily a bad thing as junior standouts Liliana Alvarez, Samantha Shellem and Hilary Hunt should make a splash this week.
Shellem received MPSF Athlete of the Week honors three times in 2012-13 and broke the UCD record in the 500 freestyle earlier this season.
While Jahn is predicting a few first-place finishes, it’s a communal effort that she hopes will pave the way to victory. The Aggies have declared top eight finishes in every event as the primary objective.
“It’s not unachievable, but they have to be relaxed, and have the confidence that they’ve trained well,” Jahn said. “It’s out of your hands, honestly, what you can do is only what’s in your lane. How others do, you have no control over.
“That’s what is so nice about swimming, is that you can achieve a huge amount of success — break personal records — and still finish in 16th place.”
In addition to the swimmers, UCD is sending four divers to a separate conference meet — beginning Thursday — at the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs. These local women will be up against uncertain odds, according to Jahn.
“It’s unpredictable, because the scoring is so subjective,” she explained. “All schools are represented on the judging panel, but beyond that, there’s typically politics involved. Some judges are more partial to certain types of divers.”
For the Aggies, the wager is on a freshman trio — Lucy Lafranchise, Audrey DeNeffe and Hanna Tears — and sophomore Shannon Stewart.
As much a gamble as it may seem to have such young athletes filling the essential roles, Jahn says that experience is not a principal concern.
“For them, it’s just going to be handling the pressure,” she said. “We’ve sent them to two meets where they had the opportunity to see Division I, nationally competitive divers. They’ve seen what it takes. We’ve prepared them.”
The UCD divers, like the swimmers, head into their events with confidence reinforced by a month’s worth of training — adapting to a challenge in which there’s no such thing as beginner’s luck.
“The team has done a great job getting ready for this meet, now it’s just a matter of finding out,” Jahn said. “I hope that we get a good payday there.”
At the MPSF meets, Aggie swimmers and divers will have a chance to qualify for the NCAA Championships, set for March 21 in Indianapolis.
— Reach Brett Johnson at [email protected] or 530-747-8052.