Looking to extend their success

NMU swimmers and divers strive to win GLIAC title, return to NCAA?Championships this season

Northern Michigan University's Arnoldo Herrera competes in the men's 100-yard breaststroke on Saturday, Jan. 12, 2018, against Wisconsin-Green Bay at NMU's PEIF pool. (Shannon Stieg photo)

MARQUETTE — When it comes to having a consistently successful athletic program, it’s hard to top the Northern Michigan University swimmers and divers.

Last year was another strong season for both the women’s and men’s programs. The women’s squad set 11 school records and five new pool records at the PEIF. NMU also had a national champion with GLIAC Swimmer of the Year Rachel Helm winning the 200-yard backstroke after she took home a national title in the 100 back in 2017.

If that wasn’t enough, Northern had six All-Americans, eight honorary All-Americans and finished 16th nationally, its best finish in four years and its second-best finish since the 2000-01 season.

Then there’s the men’s team, who put forth a stellar performance in just its second season. The Wildcats took second place at the GLIAC Championships, had 11 All-Americans, four honorary All-Americans and set 14 new school records. Grantas Dapkus was also named GLIAC Co-Male Swimmer of the Year and NMU head coach Heidi Voigt earned GLIAC Men’s Swimming and Diving Coach of the Year. Northern even defeated a Division I program, Wisconsin-Green Bay, at the PEIF and finished the year 18th in the nation.

Voigt said that it was a tough break for the men as they appeared to be right on the cusp of toppling conference powerhouse Grand Valley State, but fell a little short. She also said that for the women, it was a tough fight between the Wildcats, GVSU and Wayne State for the conference title and that the NMU women are just as close to getting the top spot.

“The men did so well, but we were right behind Grand Valley and I really just want to finish them off,” she said with a laugh. “There’s been so many seniors where that’s been their drive, to be conference champions before they graduate and turn over the reins. These are the men who started the team, or were part of the reinstating of the team. They really have a good drive and to be second last year, they were so close.

“With the women, it was a closest battle between the top three teams in our conference that it’s been in a long time. We were 16th in the nation and third in our conference, so it tells you how great our conference is. We’re knocking on the door with those two, Wayne and Grand Valley. Hopefully, we can turn the corner.”

That’s a distinct possibility for both NMU teams as the Wildcats will have a lot of veterans this year with the men having 13 seniors and the women having nine. Dapkus and Renars Bundzis, who took second in the 200 back at the NCAA Championships, highlight the men’s returnees. On the women’s side, Helm will be back as she tries to get her third straight national title along with Katharina Springhetti, who didn’t join the team until January and still won the 200 breaststroke at the GLIAC Championships. Diver Angela Probstfeld will be back from an injury that prevented her from competing at the NCAAs last year and teammate Jamie Kimble is returning from an honorary All-American finish last year.

“Angela, who had been an all-American diver and got injured last year, is feeling good and hopefully, she’s healed up after the summer and is ready to go,” Voigt said. “We have some of our stars back on the women’s side like Katharina who is hopefully going to be right back at it with her breaststroke events. Jamie qualified for nationals last year in diving and she’ll be there. Rachel will only be a junior so hopefully she can continue her success. The last few years having these successful teams have really brought in some great talent.”

“On the men’s side, we’re going to be pretty well-rounded. We have eight men coming in (and nine women) and a lot of them can do about anything, which is what you want. You can throw them in anywhere and I’m really looking forward to that.”

When asked what has been the key to getting male recruits to come to Marquette, Voigt said it was due to the commitment of wanting to be excel right away in the first year of the program.

“What we did is that we invested in the thought that we gave out quite a bit of athletic scholarships because we wanted to produce right away,” she said. “The thought was people are going to want to go to a program that is doing well and I think it’s really helped the recruits that are looking at us because we’re one of the top 20 teams in the nation.”

Unlike the women’s team, who can land recruits from all over pretty easily, the men’s program had to rely heavily on foreign athletes to build up the school’s reputation before U.S. recruits started paying attention and Voigt says that’s changed in a short period of time.

“I think we do have our name out there,” she said. “The men we have coming in, I don’t think we have any internationals, but it’s been really great because we have a guy from Texas and a guy from California and a guy from Arkansas. We’re getting out there in the U.S. now. I think for the U.S. swimmers, they didn’t buy into a new team right away and now, I think they’re more confident that we can build success and we’re getting more looks.”

Looking at the schedule, Northern will be hosting UW-Green Bay again on January 12 and will head down to Bowling Green State in early October. The women will compete against Findlay (Ohio) on Oct. 6 and then in a triangular with the Oilers and BGSU the following morning. The men will also make the trip, but due to the Falcons not having a men’s program, the Wildcats will have back-to-back duals with Findlay.

“We have quite a few home meets this year, which I’m pretty excited about,” Voigt said. “We’re in a rotation with them (Green Bay). They’ve come here twice and we’ll go there next year and start a back-and-forth. With the lineup of their schedule, that worked better. Anytime someone wants to come to Marquette and swim with us, I’m all about it.”

All in all, Voigt is feeling excited about this season as the Wildcats looked primed for another huge year and maybe this is the year that they finally come home with a GLIAC title.

“We’re really happy with the way things are going,” Voigt said. “We just need to figure out how to get a few more points and go over the hump there in the conference championships.”

Ryan Stieg can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 252. His email address is rstieg@miningjournal.net.