March 9, 2010

By Marty Gitlin
Special to

Recent history screams out that Drury University is destined to win the NCAA Division II Men’s and Women’s Swimming and Diving Championships.

But history has never done one lap in a pool.

Anything can happen when athletes from around the country gather this week at the C.T. Branin Natatorium in Canton, Ohio. The event runs from Wednesday through Saturday with daily preliminaries beginning at 10:30 a.m. and finals at 6 p.m.

Drury has won the past five men’s meets and seven of the past 11 with Cal State Bakersfield snagging the other four. The Panthers have also won two of the past three women’s titles and five since 1997. Missouri rival Truman State embarked on a string of six consecutive championships in 2001, but is considered a bit of a long shot to emerge with the crown this year.

Despite annual triumphs by Drury and Truman State, a deep field has emerged for the women’s crown. Truman State coach Mark Gole cites UC-San Diego and Drury as the top contenders with Wayne State as a primary sleeper.

UC-San Diego boasts the top time this year in the 200 and 800 freestyle relays and second-best in both the 400 freestyle relay and 200 medley, and features tremendous sprinters Alexandra Henley, who owns one of the top two times in the 200 freestyle, 500 freestyle, 200 IM, 100 backstroke and 200 backstroke.

Drury is loaded as well. The Panthers return the 2008-09 Female Swimmer of the Year, Li Yuanqing, who is strong in the 200 and 400 IM, 200 backstroke and 200 butterfly. Erin Dolan and Abbey Musch, who won the 400 IM a year ago, provide Drury coach Brian Reynolds a reason to hope for a second consecutive title.

“We have a lot of talented girls,” he said. “We have a lot of good sprint freestylers and our distance squad is better than it was last year.”

Gole is optimistic as well. He bases his belief on two-time defending 200 IM champion Kate Aherne, who finished second in both the 50 freestyle and 200 freestyle last season. Sprinter Emily Buss and 200 butterfly specialist Anna Grinter gives Gole’s group depth.

“We’re shooting for the top three,” he said. “But it’s going to be a battle. [UCSD] and Drury are the favorites and we’re going to be right there with the sleepers.”

Reynolds and Gole say that in both the men’s and women’s competition, the relays should prove particularly important. It’s no wonder that UCSD is considered a strong possibility to wrest the women’s title away from Drury.

That, however, is nothing but speculation. Soon it will be up to the athletes to determine if the Drury men and women will be celebrating yet again.