Amy Hughes, NCAA.com
This is a big athletics weekend in northwest Massachusetts. One of the nation’s oldest athletic rivalries will consume two campuses, situated about 90 minutes apart.
Williams College, located in the extreme northwest corner of the state just a few miles from both the New York and Vermont state lines, is the top-ranked liberal arts college in the current U.S. News & World Reports ranking. Amherst College, located in central Massachusetts, sits at No. 2 on that same U.S. News list.
When the women’s swimming and diving team takes to the deck at Williams’ Samuelson-Muir Pool, this dual meet will feature a trio of women who set a combined eight national records while winning eight NCAA individual titles at the 2010 NCAA Division III Women’s Swimming and Diving Championships.
Amherst senior Kendra Stern, defending NCAA 100- and 200-yard freestyle champion and national record-holder in both of those events, is not focusing on Saturday’s dual as her last time competing against Williams.
“I really like this meet,” Stern said. “I feel like it’s the most exciting dual meet that we have and it’s really the biggest opportunity we have in the dual meet season to really get up and swim fast just because of the excitement and the adrenaline that is pumping.
“Of all of our meets, this one is the most exciting so I’m just really looking forward to everybody being pumped up and ready to go.”
Stern is arguably one of the best athletes in Amherst athletics history, as her two NCAA titles last March brought her career total to 10. She captured the 200-yard freestyle title by a margin of nearly 3.5 seconds. The Amherst women finished sixth as a team at the championships.
“I think that Kendra is one of the most talented kids ever to come through our program,” said Amherst head coach Nick Nichols. “Much of her improvement has happened here so we kind of feel like we must be doing something right. I think that it’s been a good balance for her in terms of the overall balance between what she does up on campus and what she’s doing in the water. She’s a double major. She’s in the middle of writing her thesis right now and she’s been great at juggling all that stuff and still swimming at a high level.”
The Stern family is intimately familiar with the rivalry between the two schools.
Kendra’s older sister, Meaghan is an Amherst grad (class of 2009) and also competed on the Lord Jeffs swimming team. A younger brother, Connor, is a junior at Williams and works in the sports information office.
The list of NCAA champions on the Williams roster for Saturday is no less impressive.
Helping the Ephs to a third-place team finish at the national meet were current junior Logan Todhunter and current sophomore Caroline Wilson. Todhunter captured individual titles in the 100- and 200-yard butterfly and the 200-yard individual medley, while Wilson won the 500- and 1,650-yard freestyle as well as the 400-yard individual medley. Wilson out-touched Stern by .06 seconds to capture the 500-yard free title.
Wilson has similar feelings as Stern about this particular dual meet.
“I think that more than anything there’s a quality of respect behind [the rivalry] because both schools are very challenging academically and our athletics are great,” Wilson said. “Even though we can say ‘I hate Amherst’ and they can say ‘I hate Williams’ everyone knows that they’re both fantastic schools and they’re so similar, but it’s still cool to have the rivalry.”
“The rivalry is what takes it from a regular dual meet with a couple of fast teams in Division III to something well beyond that,” said Williams head coach Steve Kuster. “The excitement and energy is high and it inspires them to compete. You’re also looking at two of the top five or six teams in Division III. That kind of magnifies it a little bit, but the rivalry means that it wouldn’t matter if we were 102nd and 103rd in the country. The rivalry between the schools makes it something special.”
“It’s the most exciting swim meet I’ve ever seen,” Nichols said. “It doesn’t matter from year to year. I’ve been doing this for a while but every year it’s unpredictable. There are a lot of kids who step up and have these inspired swims that you don’t expect.
“It’s interesting because it’s a great rivalry but at the same time down the line when we get down to NCAAs our kids are pretty good friends. They hang out at NCAAs. We cross over through the recruiting process with a lot of kids, so I think there are people looking at Amherst and Williams that are very similar kids. It’s a pretty intense rivalry when it comes down to it this Saturday.”
The women’s dual meet is one of five Williams-Amherst contests this weekend. Men’s hockey kicks off the festivities with a Friday evening game in Amherst. The women’s dual is next with a 1 p.m. start at Williams followed by a men’s dual also at Samuelson-Muir Pool in Williamstown.
The school’s basketball programs will continue with a hotly contested doubleheader in Amherst beginning at 2 p.m. on Saturday. The men’s game, which tips first, features No. 2 Williams (13-0) vs. No. 17 Amherst (11-0) in a non-New England Small College Athletic Conference battle. In women’s basketball, the top-ranked team in the nation, Amherst (11-0) travels to No. 4 Williams (12-0).
“Last year the hockey game was at home which was really fun to watch,” Wilson said. “Mostly everything is at Amherst this year so it’s going to be pretty impossible go to anything else. It’s cool to know that my friend on the hockey team is going against Amherst and he’s just as excited and my friends on the basketball team are pumped for their game. I think everyone just gets really excited about this weekend.”
Regardless of the outcomes on the pool deck, ice or basketball court this weekend, all parties agree about the excitement of the rivalry and the mutual respect between two of the country’s most academically challenging colleges.
“I never thought I would have been able to challenge anyone the way I did last year,” said Wilson, whose final choice of college came down to Williams and Amherst. “I think one of the attractive things [about Williams] is that it’s a great school so swimming is important but it’s not your whole life. That, I think, is an important factor for a lot of people.
“It’s just a good atmosphere,” said Amherst’s Stern, who also made a final decision between the two rival schools. “We all have the opportunity to do amazing things in and out of the pool and that it would be really hard to do that at a different place that doesn’t let us do things like that. I think that Amherst is a really great place and our team, especially, has accomplished a lot with each other and individually.”