GRAND FORKS, N.D. -- From the first team meeting last spring, the University of North Dakota’s swimming and diving team’s goal was to have the “best season ever” in 2016-2017.
“We knew we wanted to set the tone right away and that we had the potential to do great things this year,” head coach Chris Maiello said.
Over the course of the past year, that potential has become reality. Building on years of success at the Division II level, this year’s squad has left little doubt that the program is performing at its highest level in the school’s Division I era.
Success in swimming comes in many forms but perhaps the biggest sign of an improving program is the number of lifetime bests its athletes achieve. In the first three years of Maiello’s tenure at UND, the team had 109, 84 and 109 lifetime bests, respectively. In 2016-2017, that number jumped to 132.
“In order to be at your best, you need all members of your team contributing,” Maiello said. “This year was special because we had almost everyone go two or three lifetime bests. At an elite level, swimming lifetime-best performances is very difficult, so it’s rewarding to see everybody doing their part to help the team succeed.”
Much of that success came in record-breaking fashion. The team posted 80 swims in the school’s all-time top-10 list and set 16 new program records, impressive totals given the high value swimming places on measuring times against historical precedent. Highlighting the elite performances was the women’s team’s takedown of all five relay records at the Western Athletic Conference championship.
“Seeing our women beat those relay records was special,” Maiello said. “All of those records were from 2009, when you could wear tech suits that are now illegal. Not only did we get to celebrate four conference championships, but we had a real appreciation for just how fast our relays were.”
The team’s success also stretched to the national level, as freshmen divers Nick Benson and Mitch Raihle participated at NCAA Zones, and seven swimmers combined for 15 NCAA “B” cuts, the most the team has had in its Division I era. Sophomore Jacob Wielinski, with his 14:59.09 in the 1650 freestyle, finished 33rd nationally and narrowly missed becoming the first NCAA Division I qualifier in UND history.
“When I came to UND, I made it clear that our team was going to compete on the national level,” Maiello said. “Last summer, we had five athletes qualify for Olympic Trials, and we continue to rack up B cuts and Zones appearances. It’s only a matter of time before we break out on the national scene with multiple athletes at NCAAs.”
In his first three seasons at North Dakota, Maiello won more than 60 percent of the team’s dual meets, a trend which continued into the ‘16-’17 season. The women’s team compiled a 9-2 record, while the men finished at 6-2. UND continued its dominance of its Summit League rivals, going 4-0 against the University of South Dakota and South Dakota State University. In Maeillo’s four years at UND, his teams have lost only once to either of their border-state rivals.
“We fared well against some tough competition this year,” Maiello said. “We really held our own against a couple of Power-Five schools and continued to outswim our I-29 rivals. Our men won 86 events this year, and our women won 121. That’s outstanding and really reinforces the culture we’ve been cultivating here.”
All of that winning followed the team to the conference championship, where UND placed 5th on both sides - its highest finish ever - and had five individual-event champions. Freshmen Anna Andersen, Kate Breault, Emily Hamel and Megan Wenman joined returners Maddie Derby, Steph Frey, Gabi Liedy, Marlena Pigliacampi, Alli Schwab and Jess Warfield to bring home wins in four of the five relay events, while Wielinski outlasted the competition to win the men’s mile. In all, 15 men and 16 women scored points at the conference meet, giving UND not only strength at the top but depth up and down the lineup.
“In my first three years here, we had five conference champions, a number we were able to match this season, alone,” Maiello said. “I am so proud of the progress we are quickly making, and I know the day is coming soon when we will compete for a team conference championship.”
A big part of Maiello’s optimism comes from the team’s relative youth. Breault, the standout among a talented group of freshmen, took home WAC Freshman of the Year honors, after scoring 49.5 points and setting seven school records.
“Kate has been a big piece for us all year, and we were so happy to see her recognized for her hard work,” Maiello said. “The future here is bright. We only had two seniors on our relays, and we have a great class of freshmen coming in this fall who will help right away. I am excited to see what next year will bring.”