BARBOURVILLE, Ky. - The Union College men's and women's swimming teams will open their 2013-14 seasons this weekend, and as always, expectations are high for the squad's and their head coach Rafael Forti, who enters his ninth season at the helm of the program.
Last season, the men's team capped off a stellar campaign with a seventh place finish at the 2013 NAIA National Championships, a best for the program at the event. Meanwhile, the women's team finished eighth with a small roster (just five student-athletes). Individually, the Bulldogs registered 16 All-American finishes in the meet.
But, that was last year, and Forti expects a mix of both experience and youth to lead the Bulldogs to new heights at the national level.
"We have 11 new faces for both the men's and women's teams, but we have an even amount of swimmers on both sides in terms of numbers, " said Forti. "I think we have a good mix of returners and newcomers who I expect to come in and compete right away. Despite being a young team, we're good. Everyone has worked very hard in preseason practices. We're healthy and eligible, and we expect to stay that way."
On the men's side, Forti will look to replace departing seniors Louis Glavinos Jr. and Luis Ambrosio who were both NAIA All-Americans in several events. Even with just three returnees, the Bulldogs expect to still compete Nationally with a young, exciting squad.
Two seniors will anchor the Bulldogs throughout the season. First, Vinicius Rossi, who Forti expects to be the cornerstone of the team, and looks to become an All-American once again in the 100-Breast at NAIA Nationals (he finished third in the event the last two season)..
The other senior is Rafael Bertholo, who was chosen by Forti to be the team captain, and will anchor the Bulldog relay teams. Forti expects Bertholo to improve even more in his final campaign in the program, as he has worked extremely hard throughout preseason practices.
The other returnee for the men's team is sophomore Aaron Bean, who Forti states came into his own last season and was a surprise, winning the team's most improved swimmer award at the end of the year. Bean will once again swim IM and breaststroke events for the Bulldogs
Six newcomers round out the rest of the Bulldogs' roster, all of which are of freshman eligibility.
A priority for Forti in recruiting was to find long distance swimmers, and he may have found them with the freshman group of Bradley Moore, Dustin Dyer, Dalton Baxter, and Christopher Clark. Forti expects the group to contribute right away, as each can swim a variety of events. Rounding out the group is Jose Jesus Morales and Lucas Lucena who will swim butterfly and backstroke events, respectively.
Compared to the youth of the men's squad, the women's team returns four from last year's team.
Leading the way will be senior Kasey McCormick, who set school records in breaststroke events last season, and was an All-American in both the 100 and 200-breast at the NAIA Championships.
Joining McCormick in the senior class is Tanya Eustrom (a redshirt senior) and Kayla Yokley, both of whom qualified for events at the NAIA Championships a season ago. Rounding out the returnees is junior Anna Kotliarova, who joined the team in the Spring semester last season and was an instant contributor.
Also returning to the squad is junior Callie Harrigan, who is back with the Bulldogs after sitting out last season. Harrigan was an All-American in the 200-free in 2012, and led several relay teams to record breaking performances throughout the season. Harrigan will lead in sprint freestyle teams, and looks pick up where she left off.
Newcomers to the program are paced by Dana Witheft, a junior transfer from Kannakee Community College in Illinois. Witheft is a promising addition to distance freestyle events, and is also a tri-athlete.
The true freshman on the team at the start of the year will be Kellianne Holck, who will swim distance events and IM, Eliska Melicharova, who will swim backstroke, and Emily Cagle, who will swim breaststroke (Cagle's sister Stephanie was a member of the Union women's soccer team from 2009-11).
In all, Union will take part in 10 dual meets (six of which will be at home), as well as host the program's annual Winter Invitational in December at Stivers Aquatic Center. For the first time in three years, the Bulldogs will not host the Appalachian Swimming and Diving Conference Championships, as the event will be hosted by Virginia Tech in Christiansburg, Va.
All roads, however, will lead to the 2014 NAIA National Championships, held once again at the Oklahoma City Community College in Oklahoma City, Okla. in March. Forti expects his team to be at full strength going into that event, as the Bulldogs try to record another historic season.
"You can only get so far by yourself, and having Sam Mashburn in the program for his second year will be a huge asset," said Forti. "Also, having the strength and conditioning program has been a huge benefit for us, and our trainers have done a great job getting our kids back in the pool after an injury.
"I like where we are right now as a team, I'm excited to see what is in store for us. As long as we can keep everyone healthy, we should be a good team."
To view the 2013-14 Union swimming schedule, click here.