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October 10, 2011

The H2okies excited about 2011-12 season, as Tech gears up to bring ACC Championships to the CAC

By: Marc Mullen

It’s just the gift that keeps on giving.

The Christiansburg Aquatic Center (CAC) – home of the Virginia Tech men’s and women’s swimming and diving teams – opened last year to huge fan fair, but what has happened since has really raised the H2Okies to new levels.

First, ranked a pair of Tech’s recruiting classes in the top 20. Next, the ACC announced the CAC would serve as host to the 2012 ACC Swimming and Diving Championships. Lastly, Aquatics International magazine chose the CAC as one of the 13 best aquatic centers in the country.

Ryan Hawkins

“Well, the Christiansburg Aquatic Center has emerged as an incredible component to our program,” said Ned Skinner, Tech’s director of men’s and women’s swimming and diving. “With being awarded the 2012 ACC Championships, it just shows how impressive this facility is. It continues to win national-level awards for design and implementation and ability to host national-level competition.

“It was evident in our recruiting class where our men’s team was ranked 19th and our women’s class was ranked 13th. So having that facility up and running really made an impact in our recruiting cycle last year. We’re really excited about what this pool has brought to us, not just for recruiting, but also with our daily training and the ability to do long-course meters.”

Speaking like a kid who got the IT toy for Christmas, Skinner raves about the CAC and what it has done for his program. However, he certainly understands a lot of work went into it and gives Jon Jaudon, Tech’s associate AD for administration, credit for bringing the ACC Championships to Virginia Tech.

“Jon Jaudon should receive a lot of credit for masterminding the ability for the facility to become capable of hosting a major meet by having the seating upstairs to accommodate over 1,000 fans and having the deck space necessary to host a meet of this caliber,” Skinner said. “So we ultimately put a bid in with the conference, and I went down there and proposed it to the coaches.

“We had used pictures and things that Dave Knachel (Virginia Tech’s director of photography) had helped us assemble, and the coaches voted for it to happen. So it’s really going to be a great way for us to showcase to the swimming community, and ultimately recruits who will watch the video stream, this beautiful facility.”

And just like that kid with the IT toy, all the other kids want to come over to Skinner’s “house” and use it. Visiting the H2okies are nine schools that will compete in a meet format. Plus, the facility serves as the host for the two-day Virginia Tech Invitational for the second straight year.

“It’s a very fast pool, and we’ll be hosting almost every ACC team throughout the season that wanted to come in and practice in our pool and have a dual meet against us,” Skinner said. “So for the first time in my 14 years at Virginia Tech, I haven’t had to beg people to schedule. They’ve been coming to me.

“It’s really been a lot of fun to be wanted and for people to say, ‘We want to come and swim in that pool and dive in that pool.’ It really is a great environment. The cleanliness of it, the well-lit environment, the air quality … it really is a cutting-edge facility. You think of dark, chlorine-smelling pools, and this is really a pristine environment.”

Not only has Tech brought in top recruiting classes for both teams this season, but Skinner also hired two new top-notch assistants to join his staff after a pair of departures.

Aaron Bell, the newest men’s assistant, was a 20-time NCAA Division II All-American at Clarion and is a former top assistant at the University at Buffalo, where he helped coach the Bulls to 20 Mid-American Conference titles, 74 school records and the MAC team title last season.

Sarah Stockwell, an assistant on the women’s side, was an eight-time NCAA Division I All-American from Indiana University and is the holder of two Hoosier swimming records – the 100 and 200-yard breaststroke.

“Sarah has brought incredible energy and passion and knowledge to our program,” Skinner said. “We’re just so happy to have her. The women’s team and the men’s team have really responded great to her. She’s fiery, and I wouldn’t want to buck her.

“Aaron is an incredible recruiter. He’s just got this excitement and passion about him. He’s just a happy person, and the team has responded very well to him as well. The vibe of the staff really has changed. It was great before. It’s just different now, and the team has responded really well to it.”

This pair joins Ron Piemonte and Reed Robelot, whom Skinner could not leave out in discussing his new assistants. He mentioned how Robelot was instrumental in keeping things going during the transition of coaches, and Piemonte’s unbelievable success as the head men’s and women’s diving coach.

“Ron Piemonte’s classes are arguably top five if not top in the country,” Skinner said. “He’s got three women who are new to our program that have scored at nationals, and his men’s team continues to take off, and I’m just so proud of what he’s done.”

When taking a deeper look at whom to watch this season, the divers certainly head the list, starting with junior Logan Shinholser. He became Tech’s first diver and second H2Okie to earn All-America honors after placing eighth in the platform event at the NCAAs this past summer. He qualified for the NCAA Championships in all three diving events, including the 1-meter (23rd-place finish) and 3-meter (26th), and he also won the ACC title, becoming Tech’s first ACC diving champion.

Ryan Hawkins qualified for the NCAA Championships as a freshman and reached the finals of each of the three diving events at the ACC Championships. He earned 44 points with a fourth-place finish in both the 1-meter and 3-meter events and a fifth-place finish in the platform.

“Logan has really emerged as one of our premier student-athletes and as an elite diver at the national level,” Skinner said. “He will be a factor at the Olympic trials next year. Then his teammate, Ryan Hawkins, is a real player, and those two are a great one-two punch.”

On the women’s side, Skinner really likes the addition of three newcomers, which includes a transfer from Indiana, Logan Kline, to the talents of junior Sara Mokhtari.

“Logan’s looking really strong and paired with (freshmen) Kaylea Arnett and Kelli Stockton, these three ladies are really prolific, and we’re just amazed at the immediate energy they have brought to the women’s side,” he said. “They give us four legitimate divers because Sara scored at all three levels last year at ACCs, so we plan on taking four great divers to the women’s meet.”

In the swimming events, it is difficult to single out just a handful of student-athletes, especially when Skinner reveals this piece of information.

“We have 11 men who have qualified in swimming for the Olympic Trials, and that’s a big number. Our next biggest before that was two,” he said. “Then we also have four women who have qualified and five divers, so we have 20 total H2Okies so far qualified for the summer trials in hopes of making the Olympic team. Now how many make the Olympic team, I don’t know, but at least we have a chance.”

Erika Hajnal

However, one female who cannot be counted in this list does stand out in her own way. Senior Erika Hajnal was the only Tech swimmer to qualify for the NCAAs – in three events – and just missed honorable mention All-America honors with a 17th-place finish in the 1650 free. She did earn All-America honors as a sophomore with an eighth-place finish in the 400 IM in 2010.

“There is no doubt that our women’s swimmers are led by Erika Hajnal from Hungary,” Skinner said. “She’s a threat to make the 2012 Hungarian Olympic team in the 10K open-water swim.

“So not only are we preparing her for college swimming this year, but we are also doing some open-water swimming and some additional distance work to help her try to make a run at that Olympic team next June.

“Then, our freshman class looks really strong. We were very prolific in recruiting, so we are going to count on some youth to help us immediately, but they look great early.”

He added that the leadership of senior Jace Howanitz and junior Heather Savage has “been very important for us and they have done a great job at bringing everybody together.”

On the men’s side (touching on a few), two-time NCAA qualifier Charlie Higgins, a 2011-12 captain, an ACC silver medalist and the school record holder in the backstroke events, returns as does junior backstroker Zach McGinnis.

“Charlie is really hungry and eager to finish his career on a great note,” Skinner said. “Zach is one of those swimmers that will be preparing himself for the Olympic Trials next summer, and he’s really emerged as a player at the national level.”

Some of the other Olympic Trial swimmers include junior captain Greg Mahon in the 100 butterfly and the 200 IM (he holds the school record), and sophomore Nick Tremols in the 100 and 200 butterfly. Both were members of the 2011 All-ACC Academic Swimming and Diving Team.

“I would like to mention that our men’s team had nine guys on the academic All-ACC team and the next closest was six, and our women had four,” as Skinner adds another one of his tidbits.

One of those four women includes junior Laura Simon – a 2011-12 captain. She was Tech’s female recipient of the 2011 Skelton Award for Academic Excellence in Athletics, the top honor handed out by the Tech athletics department.

“We’re very proud about what our women and men do in the classroom as well as in the pool,” Skinner said. “So I think we do a nice job of putting a true student-athlete in the water.”

Both the men’s and women’s teams have been models of consistency under Skinner since joining the ACC. Neither has finished lower than fifth in the conference race in the past five years.

Given a strong diving contingent and some strong swimmers such as Hajnal and Higgins, that trend should continue in 2011-12.