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First meet helps Knights gauge conference competition

<p>Junior Michelle Berman is the Knights' distance freestyle
specialist during the 2010-11 campaign and also swims the fly.</p>

Junior Michelle Berman is the Knights' distance freestyle specialist during the 2010-11 campaign and also swims the fly.

The Rutgers swimming and diving team jumps into Big East competition with both feet this weekend in a quad-meet against Connecticut, Georgetown and Villanova at the RU Aquatic Center.

The meet begins Friday afternoon at 4 p.m. and resumes Saturday at 10 a.m. The meet is the first of the regular season for the Scarlet Knights, as they face three Big East rivals and receive an immediate indication of where they stand within the conference ranks.

The Knights have been preparing for this moment for the past seven weeks under the tutelage of first-year head coach Phil Spiniello. Spiniello was most recently an assistant coach at Princeton before taking the head job at Rutgers in July.

"I approached every day like I was the head coach when I was an assistant, so it has been a smooth transition," Spiniello said. "I want to create a team atmosphere between the swimmers and divers — a culture of working together to reach the team's goals — and a base of camaraderie around hard work."

With only one senior on the team and freshmen in many key roles, the Knights' relative inexperience cannot be questioned. It remains to be seen just how far their youth can carry the group.

"This team as a whole is a very young team, but I'm not concerned about the inexperience. It will set us up for years to come," Spiniello said.

Without experience to fall back on, Rutgers will need to rely on talent and technique to accomplish their Big East Tournament goals. The team does have one defining characteristic that sets it apart from the pack, according to freshman diver Valentina Gordon.

"Sometimes in practice we make careless mistakes that we would never want to make in a meet," Gordon said. "But our greatest strength is positive energy. If someone is down we all support each other to get back up."

Rutgers will also count heavily on the leadership of its captains in senior diver Jen Betz and redshirt junior swimmer Kirsten Fontana. Betz, identified by Spiniello as the person who stood out most in practice, broke the school record in the three-meter dive last weekend at the Sonny Werblin Invitational.

"Jen pushes us all to work hard. She's the oldest on the team," Gordon said. "All of us work hard because she works hard. She forces us to give 100 percent every single day in practice."

Fontana is coming off a year in which she redshirted due to a knee injury. Spiniello did not express any concern about the condition of her knee coming into this season.

"Good things are on the horizon for Kirsten Fontana," Spiniello said. "She has the experience others can learn from. Her eagerness to get better and desire to be great make her a role model day in and day out."

This weekend the Knights attempt to focus on technique and not beating themselves. Connecticut and Villanova already won meets against Division I competition and appear to be ready for a Big East showdown.

"It's about racing, not worrying about the time," Spiniello said. "Race the woman next to you, that's the focus."

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