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Ashland coach Paul Graham

Amy Hughes, NCAA.com

It wasn’t all that long ago that Ashland University head coach Paul Graham went to practice on a daily basis hoping that his team’s home pool was still holding water.

“It was built in the early ‘60s,” Graham said. “It continually leaked water. We were holding it together with duct tape and God knows what.”

The Eagles moved into a new pool in time to host the 2007 Great Lakes Intercollegiate Athletic Conference Swimming and Diving Championships at the Ashland University Natatorium – Sport Science/Recreation Building. It includes an eight-lane 25-yard pool with a diving well and has provided a launching point that has allowed the Ashland program to rise to third in the most recent CSCAA Division II Poll.

“To be able to have a facility that you can come into every day and know that it’s going to have the space and the things that you need to be successful, is an absolute blessing on my end,” Graham said. “You don’t have to worry day in and day out if there’s water in the pool. It isn’t like track where you can just run anywhere. We’ve got to have some good water and now we have good water.”

With that good water has come good talent, both locally and from around the nation and even the world.

Junior Maura Anderson is from nearby Lakeland, Ohio. She is a two-time NCAA qualifier and six-time All-American. Last season, she finished eighth in the 100 butterfly (56.37) and 200 IM (2:06.41), setting team records in both events.

“My goal was just to make it to nationals in my four years here,” Anderson said. “I had no idea that we’d be at this level right now, but the 200 free relay won at nationals last year and to be able to make it individually in two events to the top-eight finals at nationals has just been wonderful.”

Anderson was not part of that relay win, the first relay victory for any Ashland squad, male or female, in athletic department history. Teammate Julie Widmann swam the leadoff leg of that relay.

“It was a great success especially because it was the first relay championship for the women’s swim team here at Ashland,” Widmann said. “So not only were we making history at NCAAs, we were making history here at Ashland.”

Widmann, a sophomore from Littleton, Colo., chose Ashland because it fit her three criteria.

“[Ashland] had everything I was looking for,” Widmann said. “The three main criteria were the swim program, a fashion merchandising program and the religious life program. This is the only school that had that as well as a swim team that was like a family. I didn’t want to leave Colorado, but this school is such a great fit for me that it was worth coming all the way to Ohio.”

The new facility certainly figured into that decision as well.

“I trained in a poor facility in high school,” Widmann said. “I realized that in college, swimming is much more of a job requirement and if it didn’t have a good facility, I wouldn’t want to spend as much time there.”

“Compared to the other colleges I visited their pools just seemed really gloomy,” Anderson said. “Here at Ashland, it’s very bright and just makes me happy to go to practice every day.”

The improved facility has benefitted recruiting in multiple ways.

“It’s a nice contrast between [Widmann and Anderson],” Graham said. “Maura is from the Cleveland area in northeast Ohio, so she’s about an hour away and within our home recruiting base. Being able to come in and improve is a great selling point for our local area to show what we’re able to do here if you are willing to come in and put in the work.

“Then we have to sprinkle that in with the kids from the rest of the country. To be able to have somebody like Julie come in and improve as much as she has, that just helps our recruiting not only nationally but internationally. Now, with the level of athletes we have in the program, we get interest from all over the place about coming to Ashland University.”

Graham, who was named the 2010 Division II Women’s Coach of the Year, saw his team vault into the national top 10 last season before finishing seventh at the NCAA Championship behind that winning 200 freestyle relay. Just two seasons earlier, the Eagles had finished 34th as a team at the championships.

“There have been several factors to our success over the last four years,” Graham said. “Support from the University, which includes the new facility, would be the first thing. The second thing was being able to get more kids into the program, which allowed us to hire a full-time assistant coach. Mike Shelby has been a godsend for us, coming in to really take our weightlifting and dry land programs to where they are now.

“A third factor is the competitive level within our own conference. With Grand Valley State (8th at NCAAs in 2010, 9th at the 2009 Championships) and Wayne State (2nd at the 2010 and 2009 NCAA Championships) and what they do, you really have to bring your A game every day to compete with them. For us to just try to compete in this conference, we’re also going to be able to compete nationally.”

With the dry land training and weightlifting program, as well as a top-notch facility in place, Ashland has taken aim at another top-10 NCAA finish in 2011.