by Josh LiddickLehigh Sports Communications
The middle of February always turns out to be the most energetic, success-filled and exciting time of the year for the Lehigh men’s and women’s swimming and diving programs.
Everything that was done (or not done) previously in the season doesn’t matter much anymore as for one week, the focus is on the task at hand: scoring at the Patriot League Championships.
This year in 2021-22, it’s extra meaningful since last year’s Championships were canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic. That means this year will be the first time in nearly two whole years the Mountain Hawks will be hunting medals on the big stage.
On Wednesday, the Patriots journey begins in Annapolis, hosted by the United States Naval Academy.
“Having the Championships back is the whole difference,” said 18th-year head coach Rob Herb† “It’s the reason why we compete every day. It’s live, so you have to be in it in order to get the energy. Like everyone else, our team is super, super ready and excited to have this chance again to bring the normal back and to race fast, have fast times and to score points so that we’re in it by Saturday.”
It’s certainly been a tough season on the men’s side with the Mountain Hawks finishing the campaign with a 2-5 record including a loss in the final three meets of the year. But after barely competing a season ago and still battling issues surrounding COVID, the men are still hungry for success in what is the biggest meet of every season.
“We certainly were impacted by the pandemic and not that anyone was necessarily sick but with the last year and a half of people not being able to train in the water,” said Herb. “I think we’ve gotten everyone back on pace and they’ve been getting stronger and gotten a good feel for the pool. This is the first time people are tapering in two years, so we’re excited but nervous and we have a shot to really show well this week at Navy.
“The returners have offered their experience and calmed the group down and know that we’ve been through this before and whatever we need to do to get through it, we will,” Herb said. “Perseverance has been the word we’ve used for the last two years for our whole team. Our upperclassmen have gotten folks to understand to take everything as a new challenge. If something gets messed up, it’s just a challenge. That’s been some of the best advice the team has gotten heading into this week.”
Like every sport that has competed at Lehigh or is about to, getting back into shape is something that had been a difficult one following the pandemic. Swimming and Diving is all about staying on course and sticking to the regiment, which most of the team didn’t get to follow over most of the last two years. Herb says that was the biggest challenge heading into this season.
“I think the biggest challenge was just getting people back into shape,” said Herb. “Some people hadn’t touched the water on-and-off for two years. That’s really difficult to come back from in our sport. One of the biggest challenges was just to get back to par and I think we have done that. So now we can move forward from there. It took a whole season to get there, but we got there at the right time.”
The men’s side of the Patriot League has been strong for years with Navy winning the last 17 Patriot League titles. In 2022, the Mountain Hawks are competing for their third team title and first since 2002. Lehigh finished sixth in 2020, fifth in 2019, sixth in 2018, fifth in 2017 and sixth in 2016. Getting to that top half is going to be tough , but Herb thinks they have what it takes to get back up there.
“The league is still very, very strong just like it was two years ago,” Herb said. “I think showing well and dropping times is going to be our number one priority this week. Getting in and trying to score as many points as possible relative to the fast league. Our goals are to succeed better than what we’ve done in the past and but to be realistic about where we are as well.
“We want to be in the upper pack of the league when it’s all said and done, but we know just how fast our competition is going to be. We want to show the rest of the league that we are stronger and faster than we’ good leg.”
This season, there have certainly been performers that have risen to the occasion consistently, meet in and meet out and they are both members of the senior class. Glenn Lasco (Free) and Owen Thomas (Back/Fly) are surely going to be ready swim fast once they arrive in Annapolis this week, both looking to become Lehigh’s first individual champion since 2017 (Justin White, 100 Free).
“Glenn (Lasco) is very unique and very independent,” said Herb. “He works very well with our sprint coach (Erin Matyus) and they’ve been able to design a training regimen that really works for him. He and Erin have done a great job of putting everything together in the pool this year.
“Owen (Thomas) is going to do some great things this week. He’s the silent, strong type in the pool and will definitely show in his events. Miles Cox is another guy to keep an eye on this week, as well as Alex Pattic† Both have brought great life into the underclass of our program, which is growing our team tremendously.”
On the women’s side, it’s been business as usual for a program that tends to put together tremendous runs at Patriots in February. Lehigh is searching for its fourth Patriot League title and first since 2001. It finished Patriots third in 2020, fourth in 2019, third in 2018, third in 2017 and fifth in 2016.
Despite dropping the final three dual meets of the year and finishing with a 4-3 overall record, the Mountain Hawks are still putting forth exceptional times in their events, especially with the heavy-hitters (Ann Foley and Sarah Hardy) that will score the points needed to rise through the leaderboard.
“Getting everyone to race again and being in the right spot was super important to what we do this year,” Herb said. “Even our fifth year Ann Foley was someone we saw from the very beginning think that this was going to be harder than she thought. And now, she’s peaking at the right time and swimming as fast as she had been before. I think that’s pretty much how it’s been for most of the team. Getting back into racing, doing it regularly and starting to understand what the right strategy is and what works.
“Ann has done a great job of leading the team back to having that energy again. Everyone sees her swimming fast and they know they can too.”
Foley is as decorated as they come and has a serious shot to claim more medals when it’s all said and done as she prepares for her final Patriot League Championships wearing the brown and white. She won the 50-yard freestyle (22.94) individual title in 2019 and was part of the 200-yard freestyle relay team took home gold in 2018. She has a shot to become the Mountain Hawks’ sixth four-time All-Patriot League selection and first since Kaitlyn Ruffing ’17.
“Like everyone else, Ann had limited water time too, so seeing her get back to where she was previously has been incredible to witness,” said Herb. “We’re seeing her 50 and 100 (Freestyle) come back a little bit quicker than the 200, but now she’s cruising to the times she’s used to swimming to. She was wondering if it was the right decision to come back and train for a fifth season and it was absolutely the right decision for her to do that.”
hardy and Danielle Prekop are two names to watch for this week for the Mountain Hawks, both of which have had strong highlights in the pool throughout this season. As two veterans in the pool who are both swimming their first Patriots meet since 2020, they (along with Foley) will sure be at the forefront of another deep run in the postseason.
“We’re expecting to see really solid swims from Sarah (Hardy), as well as Danielle (Prekop),” Herb said. “Both of them have been exceptionally strong this year, both in practice and in meets.
“We should also see some big things from Maddie Dorish, who wasn’t at Lehigh her first year, so this is really her first full year on campus as a sophomore. I’m also going to be very interested to see how our two budding distance first-year swimmers compete this week in Natalie Martin and Maggie Mikalic† We’ll see what happens there, as they’ve been developing well this year, especially over the last two weeks.”
Senior leadership is important, especially when the season gets down to the nitty-gritty and for the Lehigh women, that person has been senior Sarah Hornewho has certainly made strides in the pool, especially as the regular season started to wind down.
“Sarah (Horne), as a senior, is someone I could see make a big impact for us this week,” said Herb. “She digs in, she trains hard and has been a great leader this year. She’s had a great attitude, despite everything with the pandemic. She can definitely surprise people in the 400 IM and in the 200 butterfly. She’s done a great job this year, that’s for sure.”
From a diving standpoint, the Mountain Hawks have seen great highlights from each of the competitors and have seen some scores lead the way in previous meets. Lehigh will no doubt give the league’s premier diverse some fits this week, on both sides of the pool.
†Addison Cochran is our only male diver and has done such a great job this year,” Herb said. “I can’t talk more highly about him. He’s just been a class act all the way and he’s been by himself too. Addison has so good to watch and has been doing really, really well. He should perform solidly this upcoming week.
“And on the women’s side, we were really excited to get someone from the Lehigh Valley on our team this year and Sarah Gill has been exceptional in her first year with us. She’s done great for being a first year and has certainly overcome obstacles pertaining to that. Keeping an eye on her to see what happens is definitely something I would do.”
Sometimes it just takes one moment in the year to turn a season around, both competitive-wise and attitude-wise. For Herb, it was the winter that really turned a corner for both of his programs, just a few months shy of where they’re at now, getting ready for the Patriot League Championships.
“We used the fall as a way to get everyone back to campus and back in shape for this part of the season,” said Herb. “We had a lot of different style workouts going on and I’d say by November, when we faced Lafayette, we started to feel much more comfortable and knew we hadn’t pushed the gas at all to that point. After that, we had the best winter training that I’ve ever had in 18 years. We made huge strides after those sessions.”
The Patriot League Championships officially kick off Wednesday at 6 pm with three events, the 200-medley relay, the three-meter dive and the 800-yard freestyle relay. Each of the four days will have a morning and evening session with all eight sessions being streamed live on ESPN+ (subscription required).
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