How the Wildcats swimming and diving team set a deceptively impressive goal — and met it.
BY CHRISTINA CAPECCHI | PHOTOS BY BRIAN TOLCSER
At the finish of the Minnesota Intercollegiate Athletic Conference (MIAC) championship, St. Kate's swimming and diving team morphed into a screaming, jumping knot — a tangle of wet arms and soaked hair, swimsuits and street clothes. Eventually, the student-athletes contained their euphoria enough to approach the award podium and pose beside their respective step, each woman raising a jubilant hand and holding up five fingers.
Fifth place, baby!
To those who'd say "fifth" is no cause for celebration, consider what the Wildcats achieved:
Coaches Nicole Hempler and Shana Erickson shared the title of MIAC Coach of the Year.
Eleven teams competed in the February conference championship, and the victors, MIAC powerhouse Gustavus Adolphus College, earned more than twice as many points as the Wildcats, but no matter. "I think we were more excited than Gustavus," says Hempler, associate head coach.
Just a decade ago, the team had finished last in the conference, earning 118 points, its lowest score since 1976.
Then the Wildcats made a pivot, staging a slow and steady ascent. In 2002, Hempler, 32, began coaching. Her friend Erickson, 31, came on in 2005, initiating a more aggressive recruiting program. As the coaches gelled, so did the team. Their conference rankings kept rising, powered by consecutive gains in the past four years: eighth place, seventh place, sixth place and now, fifth place.
Nailing that fifth place was the ambitious goal the team set for itself at the start of the season. It was printed on purple sheets and taped inside the women's locker doors. Seeing those purple pledges after a 6 a.m. practice made a difference, says Steffanie Jurusik '13, who set three school records on individual swims and three school records on relays. "It reinforced what we were all practicing for," she says.
It quickly became clear that the College of Saint Benedict would be the team to beat to get to fifth. "After we saw what they brought on with recruits, we were like, 'It's not going to happen,'" Hempler says.
"No way," Erickson adds, shaking her head.