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Intrasquad meet offers first glimpse at youth

With two out of three coaches new to the job and many freshmen and sophomores, the Rutgers swimming and diving team can expect a transition year.

But the youth is already starting to impress.

"I'm really impressed by our freshmen and sophomores," said junior Kristen Fontana, a captain alongside senior Jen Betz. "They're leading in workouts and the weight room. They also have a lot of talent."

Although the Scarlet Knights have 12 newcomers, Fontana said a strong season is not an unrealistic goal.

"We have a lot of talent, and we have a lot of enthusiasm," Fontana said. "We only have one serious problem: We only have one serious distance freestyler."

The distance freestyler is junior Michelle Berman, who swims the fly and the distance.

"Michelle is amazing," Fontana said. "She's stepping up in practice and really pushing herself."

And despite Berman's importance to the team, she is more focused on the youth beneath her.

"The biggest goal for all of us is to incorporate RU freshman," Berman said. "It's a combination of swimming fast and helping the freshmen step up."

The Knights' goal is to win the Big East title, according to Berman, and it is not one that is out of reach.

"For the first time I can honestly say we have a team that can do it," she said.

But in order to improve, Berman believes the Knights must gain "mental toughness."

"We need to be all right with pain and realize that pain is what makes you better," the LaMirada, Calif., native said. "Hard work is not going to feel good every day. You don't go to practice because it feels good."

While Berman swims races where Rutgers is thin, she believes the Knights have the greatest depth with breaststrokers and freestylers.

Besides a lack of experience, the other difficult transition will be the new coaching staff.

"The new coaches are extremely supportive and want nothing more for us to win," Berman said. "And they're doing literally everything they can do to help us get there."

The new coaches for the Knights are head coach Phil Spiniello and assistant swimming coach Lisa Pursely.

"There's a lot of excitement around helping the program reach its potential and a lot of excitement around creating a culture of hard work," said Spiniello, who is in his first year as a collegiate head coach.

But Spiniello agrees with his swimmers, who believe the biggest struggle for the team will be its inexperience.

"We graduated a lot of talent last year, which means a lot of opportunities for young athletes to fill those spots," he said. "We're a very young team. There are 12 newcomers on the team this year."

The Knights started practicing in early September and although competition does not begin until Oct. 22, they take to the pool this weekend for an intrasquad meet at the RU Aquatic Center.

"We're getting into shape, getting ready for the competition season to begin," Spiniello said. "Everybody's working hard. I see it day in and day out in the weight room, in the pool and during drill sessions. All our hard work lays the foundation for the Big East Championship meet in mid-February. All of our meets lead up to that. That's our focus."

And although that is the focus, this weekend is the start.

"It will be good just to get up and get some races in," Spiniello said. "It's more like a scrimmage against ourselves."

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