By Steven Eggert
The swimming and diving teams will start their seasons on Saturday after riding the waves to MAAC success last season. The men won the conference title and the women placed second in the 2011-12 year.
Shane Tonery was one of 11 freshmen on last year’s men’s MAAC championship team. He was proud of the accomplishment and is optimistic about the future of Rider swimming.
“Being a part of a team that brought the title back to Rider for the first time since 2005 was extraordinary,” Tonery said. “The coaches did a great job recruiting and training us. When MAACs came, we knew our goal and everything we worked for would be put to the test. Each season builds off its last and I learned a lot. We have a great foundation, and the future looks promising.”
Last year’s finishes for both teams added to Head Coach Steve Fletcher’s résumé. In each of his 12 years coaching, the men’s and women’s teams have either won a conference championship, or finished runner-up. Fletcher credits his success to challenging his teams in every event. This year isn’t any different.
“The schedule in the last four to five years is similar, but there are additions this year,” Fletcher said. “The women swim at Rutgers, the men and women are swimming at Fordham and the men swim at Yale. These are schools with better facilities and maybe more athletic scholarship funding. Our meets are by design, and our athletes need to be challenged every week. That’s why the schedule is the way it is.”
The men’s team has three captains seniors Johnny Funk, Kyle Grossman and Kevin Mahana. With eight seniors on the team, Funk feels each of them have a valuable role.
“From a leadership standpoint, our senior class is well-equipped to handle the necessary roles,” Funk said. “Our plan this year consists of three senior captains, but every senior plays a critical part in terms of the prosperity of the program.”
Senior Kelly O’Connor is optimistic about leading the women’s team to another great season.
“As a senior this year, I hope to lead by setting a good example in and out of the pool,” she said. “I think the women’s team is ready for the season. We begin with a few tough meets; however, we have a strong team this year, and are working to win the MAAC championship at the end of the season.”
Junior Trevor Hiller is the only returning diver for the Broncs. This season, he teams up with freshman Wayco Bailey. Diving coach Eric Blevins explained the strengths of the men’s team.
“Last year, Trevor improved immensely,” Blevins said. “He went to ECACs and was the one-meter champion, so he exceeded expectations for me. Wayco is a tremendous athlete with a lot of potential. It’s great having Trevor there to motivate him.”
Hiller has high aspirations this season after a good sophomore year.
“My goals for this season are to win both boards at MAACs and I hope to achieve an overall place of top eight at NCAA zones this year,” Hiller said. “This year I hope to really improve my three-meter and up the degree of difficulty of my dives on both boards.”
The Broncs have not had a women’s diving team since the 2010-11 season. This year, Blevins recruited two freshmen, Emma Billerbeck and Virginia Bresko. Blevins believes they will be vital to the team’s success this upcoming season.
“Last year we didn’t have a girl’s team, and the team suffered because of it,” Blevins said. “This year, Emma and Virginia are going to help the swimming program and will rebuild the diving program. Emma has improved so much since her arrival, and Virginia has some of the prettiest diving lines I have seen in a long time. They’ll continue to improve and learn harder things.”
Funk hopes that his team can win the MAAC title in his last season at Rider. However, he also understands that there are a few months of hard work beforehand. The team’s first test is Saturday on the road at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County.
“We hope to win on Saturday and are looking for big swims from the younger guys, but we understand our goals as a program,” Funk said. “The big picture is repeating as the Swimming and Diving MAAC Champions; everything else that happens from now until February is just another step along the journey.”
Fletcher has coached a successful program for the last 12 seasons. He has the tools to have another championship season. However, he realizes success isn’t handed out on a silver platter.
“For 12 years, we’ve won or been runner up in conference on both the men’s and women’s sides,” Fletcher said. “I think our freshman class stacks up very well; we have a returning senior class that’s extremely competitive and the other athletes are improving. Certainly our outlook is positive, but we don’t know until we get there, and that’s the way we have to approach every day because nothing is guaranteed. We never commit to a year thinking anything is given.”
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