MONMOUTH, Ill. - Thirteen could be the lucky number for the Monmouth College swim team this season.
With 13 men and 13 women for the upcoming season, coach Alex de la Pena has his sights set on a strong finish for both teams when the season winds down at the Midwest Conference Championships five months from now. Monmouth's women swam to their highest finish in the history of the program a year ago - third - while the men finished fifth at the league meet. The Scots lost talented seniors on both teams, including five-time conference champion Josh Dunn, who has now joined the coaching staff, and 2009 women's breaststroke champion Krysta Sparks.
"We've definitely added quality," said de la Pena, whose men's team boasts 10 newcomers, more than doubling their roster from a year ago. "This is a very good freshman class."
On the men's side, the "very good" freshman class will be joining two juniors and a senior who have also been pretty good. Junior Gabe Baginski (Aurora, Ill./Waubonsie Valley) - a two-time MWC champion in his own right - and Zach Heilman (Downers Grove, Ill./North), along with senior James Corbeil (Forest Park, Ill./St. Patrick), will form the building blocks for the future.
"Gabe has been simply awesome in practice," praised de la Pena. "He busts his tail every single day. His mentality is to be the top freestyler in the conference. Zach is very solid in the breaststroke and James is a solid swimmer who leads with a good work ethic."
It isn't often swim coaches mention height when they speak of their recruits, but de la Pena is quick to point out 6-foot-4 freshman Raheem Brown (Grand Rapids, Mich./East Kentwood) and 6-9 newcomer Ethan Walenta (Dunlap, Ill./Dunlap) are two who could have an immediate impact.
"Raheem was recruited as a water polo player by Division I schools," reported de la Pena. "He's an excellent breaststroker, and I expect he could be one of the best in the conference. Ethan's length really helps him in the backstroke."
The Scots will have a well-rounded stable this season with eight freshmen among their 10 newbies. Jory Seibert (Galesburg, Ill./Galesburg) could provide versatility in the backstroke, butterfly and individual medley. Cameron Weber (Naperville, Ill./Metea Valley) is expected to add even more depth as a butterfly specialist.
In the sprints, rookie Neal Hosper (Naperville, Ill./Central) is expected to make a splash. He's called a "pretty strong" freestyler and will be a good compliment to Baginski's distance freestyle events.
Another freshman, Tyler Osborn (Monmouth, Ill./United), should help the Scots in both the breaststroke and IM. Missing the training background of the other newcomers, de la Pena reports Osborn has some "very good" physical attributes to make him a solid addition.
"He's got a great work ethic," praised de la Pena. "That's going to work out quite well for us. He's got the potential if we can bring it to the top."
Once the football season ends, the Scots will pick up Lane Ferguson (Gibson City, Ill./Gibson City-Melvin-Sibley). The freshman is spending the fall on the gridiron and will bring that mentality to the pool. Sprinter Alex Hernandez (Des Plaines, Ill./Maine East) rounds out the freshmen class.
Junior sprint specialist and freestyler Tony Marino moves to the swim team after competing as a member of Monmouth's nationally-ranked water polo team.
"Tony will be a big addition for us," claimed de la Pena. "He played water polo the last two years, but decided to swim as well this year. All but one of our guys is also playing water polo, so we know they're coming to the pool in great shape."
When de la Pena adds sophomore diver Marshal Palfenier (Naperville, Ill./Waubonsie Valley) to the mix, the Scots may have the most depth and versatility in recent memory.
"That was a primary focus," said de la Pena of the team's depth. "We think we can keep adding to that. We only graduate one guy this year (Corbeil), so down the road, we should be a pretty strong team. Marshall will give us some needed points in the diving well, so we're thinking we could have a legitimate shot at a runner-up conference finish. Obviously, we'd like to win it, but we don't have enough numbers just yet."
On the women's side, half of de la Pena's roster will be new to the team to go with an extremely talented returning group.
The Scots could be especially strong in the freestyle sprints, where the school record holders in the 50- and 100-yard freestyle events return. Senior Erica McAloon (Chicago, Ill./Resurrection) and sophomore Erin Willhite (East Moline, Ill./United Township) ended last season setting the new standard in the 100 and 50 events, respectively, at the MWC Championships.
Five freshmen and one senior comprise de la Pena's newcomers, and all are expected to contribute.
"Every one of them will be able to contribute points for the team," predicted de la Pena. "We lost a very good senior class last year, but my hope is this new class will be able to equal the points we lost. We'll also need our returners to bump up a place or two."
Amanda Zaidel (Elkhart, Ind./Central) and Corrine Kellerhals (Des Plaines, Ill./Maine West) are two seniors who de la Pena is counting on to improve their positions, as well as junior Dani Gordon (Freeport,Ill./Freeeport), once she completes her soccer season.
"I expect Erica, Erin and Amanda to have tremendous years for us," said de la Pena. "Erin in the sprints, Erica in the breaststroke and freestyle and Amanda in the breaststroke events could all come up with some big points. When Dani comes over from soccer, she'll help in the backstroke and freestyle. Corrine will give us depth in the distance races."
Monmouth also expects to get points from Clarissa Henby (Metamora, Ill./West Burlington). The sophomore assaulted the diving records last year, and de la Pena hopes her progression continues.
"It will be nice to have Clarissa back on the board," said de la Pena. "She showed a tremendous amount of improvement last year, so if she can continue to develop, she'll be a big part of our conference race."
Another junior - Amanda Bujak-Phillips (Belleville, Mich./Mercy) - returns to the team after an injury last season kept her out of the pool.
Among the freshmen, Stephanie Komaniecki (Oswego, Ill./Oswego) is called a "solid" distance freestyler and Morgan Breuss (International Falls, Minn./Falls) figures to be in the mix in the backstroke. Record-setting golfer Hannah Long (Newton, Iowa/Newton) will move from the links to the pool now that her fall golf season is complete. Long will be a "big help" in the freestyle events.
Look for good things in the butterfly and individual medley from rookie Breanna Hoepfner (East Moline, Ill./East Moline) and classmate Taylor Sutschek (Park Ridge, Ill./Maine South), who will specialize in the freestyle.
"Taylor has only been swimming for three years," reported de la Pena. "We see a lot of potential in her. So far, she's just scratched the surface."
Senior Julie Samuelson (Chicago, Ill./Fenwick) rounds out de la Pena's newcomers.
"We have a great freshman class," claimed de la Pena. "Our returners are in better shape than last year, and I think we've got a great combination of talent and strokes. We should be able to hold onto our third place conference finish from last year, but we could turn in some phenomenal swims and surprise some people with a second-place finish. We have good talent, we just need to keep adding depth."
The Scots' feet will barely be wet before their season begins this weekend. Valparaiso visits the Pepper Natatorium on Saturday for a 1 p.m. dual meet for Homecoming Weekend.