By Kim Leder
The water: cold. The speed: fast. The competition: tough. The elements of the typical MAAC Championships laid ahead for Rider’s swim and dive team last weekend when it traveled to Buffalo, N.Y., to compete against nine other schools vying for one title.
That elusive title was conquered by the Rider men’s team, taking home the MAAC crown for the first time since 2004, while the women’s squad finished runner-up for the third consecutive year.
With 18 freshmen making up the majority of this year’s roster, Head Coach Stephen Fletcher is excited for a championship win and the possibilities ahead with younger talent.
“Freshmen stood out in a big way on both the men’s and women’s teams moving into the top eight,” Fletcher said. “On the men’s side, we won five of five relays. We haven’t been able to accomplish that in many years.”
The top story for the men’s team was junior Johnny Funk who won two individual events as well as set a new MAAC and school record in the 200 individual medley by two full seconds with a time of 1:47.56.
In addition, Funk’s mark was an NCAA Division I consideration qualifying time.
“Funk joins a small but growing group of elite athletes from our program in recent years who can set their sights realistically on qualifying for the Division I National Championship,” Fletcher said. “This has never been done in 80 years of swimming and diving at Rider.”
Freshman Drew Peterson broke Rider’s school record in the 400 individual medley with a time of 3:55.70. He is the second athlete in Rider’s history to break the four-minute mark in the event.
“At ECAC’s this week, I expect that Drew will be able to improve on his swim from MAACs,” Fletcher said.
Another freshman, Brett Pedersen, also made the record books. He won the 100 freestyle and finished second in the 50 and 200 freestyle events.
On the women’s side, freshman Rachel Brooker came in second in the 100 fly and set the MAAC and school record in the event. Junior Addison Oswald defended her MAAC title from 2011 in both the 200 freestyle and the 20 backstroke, while junior Kelly O’Connor defended her MAAC title from 2011 in both the 400 individual medley and the 200 butterfly.
“Oswald narrowly missed our school and MAAC record in both of her events,” Fletcher said. “[The events] that Kelly participated in are among the most grueling events in the meet and she never appears to tire.”
For the men’s team, it was the year of returns for seniors Len Paccione, Scott Mitchell and Mike Tubb. Mitchell came back to compete after two shoulder injuries, while Paccione and Tubb returned after each had surgery. Tubb managed to place in the top five in the breaststroke events while Paccione got in the finals in the distance events.
“Our male seniors were a serious factor in our team success this year,” Fletcher said. “Senior diver Brendan Cavallaro achieved his goal of event champion this year, winning the three-meter event. He’ll be moving on to the NCAA Zone A Diving Championship Meet and the Division I National Championship qualifying meet.”
Fletcher found leadership from his seniors on the women’s team as well.
“Each of our three senior women, Bridgid Hennessy, Kori Kraus and Kelly Fleagle competed at their lifetime best in their events.”
They also fought through adversity to finish second.
“Some of us were sick with the norovirus and were out a few days prior to the meet,” Kraus said. “We also don’t have any divers this year, which automatically puts us down a majority of points.”
The team will be competing at the ECAC Championships this weekend.
“In the last three years that I have been here at Rider, we have taken second,” Cavallaro said. “To win the way we did this year was an amazing feeling and a great way to end my college career.”