Spiniello sees strides in first year at RU

The concept of rebuilding is taboo in many major Division I athletic programs. But when Phil Spiniello took over as the head coach of the Rutgers swimming and diving team, he knew rebuilding was exactly what the team needed most.

"I had been preparing for an opportunity like this my whole career," said Spiniello, a former assistant at Princeton. "I was just excited to put my own program into action."

The first task of any head coach is getting players to buy into a system. Spiniello sought to achieve the change in the only way he knew how — establishing a relationship as strong as some families.

"Developing a bond with the team was extremely important," Spiniello said. "Communication and building a relationship, that's my style. That's how I coach."

Spiniello's positive energy spread throughout the Scarlet Knights and no one was immune. Veterans like junior Jacquelyn Ward claim that Spiniello, "brought [her] heart back into the sport of swimming."

Even a freshman like Chelsea Rolin, who was only with the team for half of the season, instantly felt his impact.

"[Spiniello] is truly an irreplaceable part of our team," Rolin said. "I don't think I'm alone when I say that he's brought the passion and the excitement back into swimming for me. He brings so much positive energy to every workout and makes me love coming to practice every day."

There is no question that Spiniello accomplished his first goal of winning over the team, but even the most beloved coaches do not last long if they cannot produce in the win column.

Winning meets proved to be an obstacle for a Knights team without much experience and only one senior in diving captain Jen Betz.

Rutgers posted wins against Wagner and Big East-foe Georgetown, but fell against Maryland and conference rivals Connecticut and Villanova. The most trying loss for the Knights was a narrow 148-146 loss at West Virginia, where a disqualification on the final relay cost Rutgers the meet.

"Losing the West Virginia meet on the last relay and getting disqualified was really tough on the team," Spiniello said. "I thought we did a really good job to overcome that loss."

The Knights overcame the West Virginia loss and the rest of their defeats because Spiniello did not let them quit. He allowed them to rest prior to the Big East Championships, a meet that was circled on his calendar before the season even started, and the strategy paid dividends.

Several Knights posted their best times of the season at Big East, including Ward, Rolin and freshman Trisha Averill, who all qualified for NCAA "B" cuts.

"The Big East Championship is probably the meet that stands out the most to me," Spiniello said. "Seeing all of that hard work come to fruition was very exciting."

None of the swimmers' times turned out to be good enough to send them to Austin, Texas, for the NCAA Championships, but the Knights did send Betz, who qualified with her score in the three-meter dive at the Zone Diving Championships.

A return to the national stage was supposed to be down the road for this "rebuilding" team, but Spiniello helped the Knights make the leap in just his first season.

"I was happy with our finish this year," Spiniello said. "It was a good starting point — we laid a good foundation. Now we need to build on that for the future."

That future involves a rapidly improving squad that returns just about the whole team next year. As the first year of the Spiniello regime concludes, it is safe to say that Rutgers swimming and diving is going in a positive direction.

"I think the future of the program is a bright one. We have a team full of amazing girls, incredible coaches and talent beyond belief," Rolin said. "The only place we can go from here is up."

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