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October 17, 2012

Talent pool deep for Tech Swimming and Diving programs

By: Marc Mullen

Both the men’s and women’s teams return a lot of key contributors off squads that finished 18th at the NCAA meet last spring

Zach McGinnis, Greg Mahon, Logan Shinholser, Ryan Hawkins, Sabrina Benson, Kaylea Arnett, Kelli Stockton, Heather Savage, and Logan Kline

Entering the previous two seasons, there had been a bit of excitement surrounding the Virginia Tech men’s and women’s swimming and diving programs. Back in 2010, the newly opened Christiansburg Aquatic Center brought the Hokies’ a home facility second to none in the ACC, and then last year, the anticipation of holding the ACC championships at the CAC was sheer delight.

So what puts a smile on the face of head coach Ned Skinner, the 2012 ACC Coach of the Year, when looking ahead to the 2012-13 swimming and diving season? The answer is simple – his roster.

“I’d say all the tools are in the toolbox, and it’s time to do something with it,” Skinner said. “We return the lion’s share of our 18th-place team on the women’s side and our 18th-place team on the men’s side [at the NCAA Championships]. We return nine total NCAA participants. We return the lion’s share of our ACC team on the women’s side and the men’s side. So I feel like this is a year for us to rewrite history.

“We are really excited about what we can accomplish as a team this year. We’ve set very high goals, and I think with the conference meet being at the new pool in Greensboro, which is right in the back yard of the ACC offices, that is really going to be an exciting venue close by for us. We’d love to see nothing more than this sequence of events over the few years to culminate with a breakthrough for the Hokies.”

The men’s team, which finished a school-best second at last year’s ACC championships, returns four ACC champions, and all four actually took home All-America honors at the national meet as well.

None of those is more decorated than senior diver Logan Shinholser, who came thisclose to taking home all three diving discipline titles at the ACC meet, which has never been done before. He won two of those events and earned All-America honors in all three at the NCAAs.

The man who beat him on the platform at the ACC meet was teammate Ryan Hawkins, a junior who added an All-America honor in the platform event. He and Shinholser will be a one-two punch in the diving events all year for the Hokies.

“Logan Shinholser made a true run at an Olympic berth,” Skinner said. “He was right there in the hunt in the final and represented himself and the school well at Olympic Trials, but just fell short of making the team.

“We’re talking about one of the top divers in the country, and coming off three All-America performances, I would argue the most decorated swimmer or diver, male or female, in our program’s history. And he’s an incredible leader. He’s what Virginia Tech athletics is all about.

“Ryan Hawkins upended him last year at ACCs on the platform to keep Logan from a clean sweep, and he, too, had a great summer. So these young men are world-class student-athletes.”

Tech isn’t just a one-trick pony, as all of its swimming events are stacked with quality swimmers, particularly the butterfly events. Senior Greg Mahon leads the squad as the reigning ACC champion in the 100 butterfly, and he earned honorable mention All-America honors in that event as well. He finished third in the 200 butterfly and 200 individual medley at the league meet.

Mahon’s teammates were on his heels in the 200 butterfly, as junior Nick Tremols was fourth (and sixth in the 200 IM) and senior Karl Botha was seventh (third in the 100 butterfly).

“Interestingly, butterfly on the men’s side has kind of become our signature event,” Skinner said. “For example, at the ACCs this past year, we had four men in the championship final in the 200 butterfly and then we had three men in the championship final in the 100 butterfly. The year before that (2011), we had five men in the championship final in the 200 butterfly. We call them the ‘Snake Pit,’ which is a cool little moniker we’ve put on them, so they take a lot of pride in the fly. Really, the strokes have become very strong for us.”

Senior Zach McGinnis, an honorable mention All-American and ACC champion in the 100 backstroke, leads the backstrokers, while junior Nathan Hoisington came just short of his first individual title with a second-place finish in the 100 breaststroke.

“We have a very strong backstroke crew led by Zach McGinnis, the defending ACC champion in the 100 back,” Skinner said. “Our breaststroke crew is very strong. So we take a lot of pride in the stroke components.

“With the freestyle, and being such an important sequence of events because the majority of events are freestyle events, the addition of Joe Bonk, a freshman who’s coming in as one of the top recruits in the country, was a huge get for the Hokies. He’s coming off a monstrous summer. So we’re really excited about what we can do to bolster our freestyle as well.”

On the women’s side, leadership is also very abundant in the senior class, with All-Americans Heather Savage and Logan Kline returning. Savage won the 100 butterfly at the ACC meet and finished ninth in the 200 butterfly and 10th in the 100 back, while also being honored as the ACC’s Scholar Athlete for the 2011-12 season.

“Heather Savage was the scholar-athlete of the year for ACC swimming, and that’s incredible if you really think about that,” Skinner said. “Of all the programs out there, for her to be deemed the strongest in the classroom and in the pool is something she and we are very proud of. For 5-foot-2 and a half, she is an absolute swimming, racing machine. She is the most tenacious competitor that I’ve ever coached. I think she still has more room for improvement. She looks great thus far, and we’re so proud of what Heather has meant to this program.”

Much like on the men’s side, the divers on the women’s side are strong and maybe deeper. Kline was second in both the 3-meter and platform events at the ACC meet and finished fourth in 1-meter. Sophomore Kaylea Arnett, a two-time All-American, won the 1-meter event and was third in platform and fifth in 3-meter, while classmate Kelli Stockton, an honorable mention All-American, finished fifth in the platform.

“Kaylea Arnett is a diving prodigy,” Skinner said. “It’s just always been in her blood. She’s just been successful her whole life in diving. So she is well traveled internationally through the junior national diving circuit. She’s a gritty competitor and has just such a diving mind. She just knows how to get her body right to hit the water. She just has the natural ability to close the dive and still get into the water the right way.

“Kelli Stockton has blossomed as one of the top tower platform divers in the country, and she is someone that we’d want to keep an eye on as somebody right there in the final at the NCAA Championships vying for a title.

“Ron [Piemonte, Tech’s diving coach] has just done an outstanding job with our diving program. It’s one of the top three diving programs in the country, and he should be commended for not only developing them as divers, but also into a really fine group of young people.”

Two other returning Hokies to watch for this season will be junior Katarina Filova and sophomore Sabrina Benson. Filova actually didn’t even swim for Tech last year. Instead, she took the year off to train for her home country of Slovakia in preparation for the 2012 Olympics. She qualified and competed in both the 100 and 200 freestyle events in London.

Benson is the women’s backstroke specialist, earning points in the 100 and 200 events at the ACC meet, while also scoring in the 100 butterfly.

“Katarina Filova returns to the Hokies after taking a year off and realizing her Olympic dream by swimming for Slovakia in the Olympic Games,” Skinner said. “We have two more years of eligibility with her, so it’s great to have Katarina back, and she looks great and is in a really good place.

“And then, we return Sabrina Benson, who made NCAAs as a freshman. She is looking strong, and we bring in a very talented freshman class. We feel like the women’s program can be strong.”

Skinner pointed to a pair of freshmen, both from the state, whom he is hoping will have an immediate impact on his team – Kayla Iverson from Richmond and Gabrielle Bishop, a Suffolk native.

“Kayla Iverson is so gifted and just so natural in the water, and we are really excited about her,” he said. “We worked very hard to get her to come to Virginia Tech. She looks outstanding, and she already put up times as a senior in high school that would make the finals at the ACC meet.

“Then, out of the Tidewater area is Gabrielle Bishop. She was a state champion and is another swimmer who just has the gift of swimming. It’s like any sport. There are the people who are just natural at it. And in our sport, it’s very obvious. She’s strong, she’s powerful and flexible, and I think those two freshmen are ones to keep an eye on.”

Adding talent, though, is only part of the equation. Once those prospects get here, they need to train to be competitive at the Division I level, and Tech’s new Olympic Sports Athletic Performance Center will be a huge advantage for the program, according to Skinner.

“The new weight room has really changed things,” he said. “Swimming and diving’s need for the weight room was very high, and you just got to get stronger and bigger and faster. And Terry Mitchell [director of strength and conditioning for Olympic sports] has just done a great job of getting us into that weight room and getting our kids to buy into it. I think all this gets the coaches pumped up to see the kids working hard and doing some great things. It makes you want to be a better coach.”

The Hokies open the season on Oct. 20 with the Virginia Tech Swimming Challenge held at the CAC. Gardner-Webb, VMI and Liberty also will be competing in the event.

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