Seniors lay foundation for program's future
A fifth-place Big East finish was not quite what fifth-year senior captain Cat Whetstone had in mind for her final year on the Banks. But for Whetstone and the Rutgers swimming and diving team's seven other seniors, the standing is nothing to scoff at.
"It's great that we beat out [seven competing schools] considering how small we are as a team and we're only a women's program," Whetstone said of the Scarlet Knights' Big East performance in Pittsburgh. "Even though we didn't place as high as we would have liked, we still beat out some really great teams and that's great for our program as well as the University."
Rutgers men's swimming and diving was one of six varsity sports eliminated due to budget concerns following the 2006-2007 season — leaving RU as the lone women's-only swimming and diving program in the Big East.
"We were there through all the struggles that we went through to try to save the team," recalled Whetstone, a sophomore at the time. "That's been really hard and there have been so many changes in our program because of that."
Despite the turmoil, the group chose to remain at the University. And, led by Whetstone, they left their mark while helping to set the stage for a promising future.
"They've been through a lot," said head coach Chuck Warner of his upperclassmen. "They [went] through the loss of the men's program and they stayed at Rutgers. Almost every one of them had some real significant physical challenges and they developed communication, which is a really good thing for trying to have a closer team."
The leadership of Whetstone and co-captains Erin Saunders and Denise Letendre was instrumental in guiding the team's underclassmen-laden roster to a 3-0 start to the dual meet campaign.
Saunders battled through a slump to post multiple victories on the one and three-meter boards during the run, while Whetstone and classmate Shayna Longacre carried the club to key wins over Villanova, Connecticut and West Virginia, respectively.
An NCAA Honorable Mention All-American as a sophomore, Longacre bested the field in the 100 and 200-yard freestyle, as well as the 100-yard breaststroke to carry the Knights over the Wildcats and Huskies en route to being tabbed the Big East Swimmer of the Week.
Whetstone — who, along with Saunders, expects to compete in the NCAA Championships — garnered the same honor two weeks later when she captured the 100 and 200-yard backstroke to help RU swim past WVU. The Haven Beach, N.J., native also provided a highlight in the Swimming World Conference Carnival by coming from behind to clip Minnesota's Hannah Whitehead by .10 seconds for the 200-yard backstroke title.
Both Whetstone and Longacre earned All-Big East honors after the season — Whetstone on the second team and Longacre the third.
Warner also continually lauded the dedication shown by seniors Jackie Klein and Jacquie Ward in training, and cited them and classmates Kimberly Case, Tracy Dimond and Hailey Weniger for improving the team's depth — an area of concern for the 13th-year head coach coming into the season.
While graduation surely impacts the team, freshmen Brittney Kuras, Melanie Gaffey, Taylor Curado, Jessica Simunek and Zafir Taylor showed flashes of their potential. Warner said they can learn from the hard work put in by those graduating.
"Every area of preparation [needs to improve] but really an area I think everybody recognizes is getting stronger and more athletic," Warner said. "That's a big part of becoming a great swimmer."