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October 8, 2008

H2Okies look to capitalize on swimming's popularity with successful '08-09 campaign

By: Matt Kovatch

Mikey McDonald

Not too long ago, the 2008 Olympics were fresh in Americans’ minds and the sport of swimming was arguably more popular than ever, mostly thanks to Michael Phelps’ history-making performances and many of the other great races that took place in Beijing.

Televised live during primetime across the U.S., the swimming events were watched by millions of Americans, whether it was in the comfort of their own homes or on the big screen at a local establishment. Standing in a Blacksburg eatery for Phelps’ seventh gold-medal effort – the 100-meter butterfly that he won by a hundredth of a second – was a surreal experience.

Everyone who had turned on a TV over those two weeks knew that was the night that Phelps could tie Mark Spitz’s American record, but it wasn’t until that moment – when hundreds of complete strangers erupted in unison as the American flag flashed across the screen next to the No. 1 – that it became clear. Swimming was at the forefront of the sporting world, and whether or not many of those people had ever watched a race in their lives – or whether or not they ever would again – they would certainly remember watching it on that night.

Phelps had made Americans proud, but the Olympics, and the role that the action in the pool played throughout August, had made those in swimming circles even more proud, including Virginia Tech head swimming and diving coach Ned Skinner.

“It shows that our country can rally around something beyond the major sports,” Skinner said while reflecting on the magnitude of the United States’ performance in Beijing. “I think the Olympic movement still makes us feel good and it’s still such an important part of our culture and what people do. Winning nearly one-third of the medals for America through our sport … [our swimmers] represented our sport very well.”

Several Hokies actually got to taste the Olympic fever firsthand, as four women who will swim for Tech this season – which begins Oct. 25th at War Memorial Pool – participated in the U.S. Olympic Trials in July in Omaha, Neb. Senior Megan Newell, redshirt sophomore Sarah Losinger and freshman Jace Howanitz each participated in preliminaries, while senior Sara Smith made it all the way to the semifinals of the 50-meter freestyle, where she swam in the same heat as eventual silver medalist Dara Torres.

“As we learned at the Olympics, American swimming is the cat’s meow,” Skinner said. “I just think it was an incredible experience for those women.”

Skinner is hoping that those swimmers can parlay that experience into a successful 2008-09 campaign for the Hokies, the last season that will see Tech compete in War Memorial before moving into the soon-to-be-completed Christiansburg Aquatics Center.

Keep in mind that the Hokies said farewell to some big-name seniors last year: Jessica Botzum was a five-time All-American, while Scott Beard and Kaan Tayla both won multiple ACC championships in their tenure. Despite that, Tech should still field a team that can challenge last year’s finishes of fourth in the ACC and 23rd in the NCAA for the women, and fifth in the ACC and 37th in the NCAA for the men. How each side goes about it, though, will be a little bit different.

The women once again have a solid senior class, one that will be led by Smith – a superstar in the freestyle – and Newell and Jordan McHorney – a pair of NCAA Championship veterans. The team obviously loses a lot of guaranteed points and individual conference titles now that Botzum is gone, but they should have enough firepower elsewhere to compensate until someone steps up to fill the breaststroke shoes that Botzum wore for so long.

“The women have the potential to have a very strong year,” said Skinner, the Hokies’ 11th-year head man. “We always want to be in the upper third of the conference, but there are some teams like Clemson and Georgia Tech that are on our heels. We’re going to have our hands full, but we have what appears to be a jelling group of women and an improving diving program. We certainly feel like our goal of staying in the top third is realistic. To me, trying to build on what we did last year is possible.”

The men, on the other, hand, have very few seniors to bank on, but the good news is that they have a fantastic crop of freshmen to add to the mix. In fact, the men’s recruiting class of 12 newcomers was ranked by as the nation’s 12th-best recruiting class. Only Virginia (No. 7) and North Carolina (No. 8) were ranked higher among Tech’s conference foes. Charlie Higgins leads the way as one of the country’s top backstroke recruits, while the Web site included Caglar Gokbulut and Philip LaRosa among the nation’s top-10 milers, and Dan Flynn and LaRosa among the top-20 400-yard individual medley swimmers.

If the youngsters make progress and junior Mikey McDonald continues his ascension into the ACC’s upper echelon of divers, the Hokies could surprise some folks.

“On the men’s side, I would say we’re going to be young but strong,” Skinner said. “We have so many new faces, but with the way that the men are approaching the season, I feel that there is a lot of camaraderie and that they are really zeroed in on making this program even better.”

Here is a closer look at some of the Hokies to keep an eye on this season:

Men to watch

Mikey McDonald – The current junior was the only diver, man or woman, to score points at the NCAA Championships for the Hokies last year, placing 11th in the 1-meter and 15th in the platform. Skinner calls him the most prolific male on the team – swimmers included – and he serves as the captain for the diving squad.

Ian deToll – A sprinter in the freestyle and the butterfly, the current senior scored 47 points at the ACC Championships as a sophomore, but a couple of illnesses sidetracked him as a junior. He’s back at full strength and ready to end his career on a good note.

Charlie Higgins – A freshman in the backstroke/butterfly, Higgins is probably the main newcomer to keep an eye on. He was highly sought after as a recruit, and since he signed with Tech last fall, his swimming is said to have catapulted to the next level. He was ranked second in the nation among 200-yard backstroke recruits by

James Aitken and Ben Miller – This pair of seniors will serve as captains of the men’s swimming team, a pair that is truly committed to making the group better. Skinner said they provide “the best leadership I’ve seen in my 10 years at Virginia Tech.”

Stephen Hawkins – He is only a sophomore, but he is the lone ACC champion who returns for the men’s team. He swam a leg on the first-place 200 freestyle medley relay team and will be a big factor in whether Tech continues its relay success.

Kaan Tayla – No, the ACC freestyle champion isn’t back for another run at the title – he completed his eligibility last season – but he is back with the team training for the 2009 World University Games while he finishes his degree. His expertise will be an invaluable resource for a team that features a slew of freshmen, especially considering that he participated in his second Olympics over the summer for his native Turkey.

Women to watch

Sara Smith

Sara Smith – This senior freestyle sprinter has spent most of her career in the departed Jessica Botzum’s shadow, but she is an All-American in her own right. She had a magnificent junior year that ended with her advancing to the semifinals of the U.S. Olympic Trials, and she did it all after battling through a case of mono. Now healthy, she could have a truly special season.

Megan Newell – As was mentioned earlier, this senior competed at the U.S. Olympic Trials in July. But she also had a great run at the NCAA Championships, scoring points as part of the 200 and 400 medley relay squads, and breaking school records in both the 100 and 200 butterfly events.

Jordan McHorney – This senior joined Newell, Smith and Botzum on the point-scoring medley relay teams at the NCAA Championships, and she will also serve as one the captains for the women’s swimming team. She sets a positive tone for the program.

Claire Dickey – This senior backstroke/individual medley specialist exemplifies what a student-athlete and role model should be, and she has the resume to back it up. She was presented with the Skelton Award last year, which is the most prestigious scholarship in the Tech athletics department, and she was elected as one of two captains for the women’s swimming team.

Jace Howanitz – She is the counterpart to Higgins on the men’s side, a freshman who was the team’s marquis signing and who will be expected to contribute. She had a great summer that was highlighted by the U.S. Olympic Trials, and she looks great early on as a freestyle/individual medley specialist.

Sarah Milton – Now a sophomore, Milton was the top female diver the Hokies last season and scored points for Tech at the ACC Championships. Expect her to improve in her second year.