1997-98 Season Outlook
In 1997, the women set the example. In 1998, both the women and men will try to duplicate it.
That's the story from the McDonald's Swim Stadium, where the USC women's swimming and diving team begins the task of defending its first-ever national championship. Across the pool, the men's team, coming off a sixth-place finish at the NCAAs last year, may have its strongest unit of the decade. Both squads have legitimate chances at NCAA crowns come March.
USC swimming coach Mark Schubert, beginning his sixth year leading the men's team and fifth coaching the women, eyes the upcoming season with cautious optimism.
The women's team, 9-1 overall, 4-1 in the Pac-10 in 1997, returns 7 of its 9 All-Americans from last year's NCAA championship team. The men's team, 8-0 overall, 4-0 in the Pac-10 last year, including a dual-meet upset win at Stanford, returns 6 of 9 All-Americans.
Though losses seem few, they were heavy for both teams.
The women are without one of the sport's all-time greats in Kristine Quance. Quance was a 7-time All-American last year and won 2 NCAA titles while serving as the team's emotional leader. Add to that the graduation of Hope Gittings, a 4-time All-American in 1997, and Schubert has a lot of points to replenish.
The men lost the services of All-Americans Jeff Julian, Brad Francis and Kent Johnson (7 combined All-American honors), whose absences weaken the Trojans across the board, though not quite as much as the women.
"At the NCAAs last year, our women's team had lots of blue-chip points from all of our top 5 finishes," Schubert said. "We've lost a lot of that from Kristine and Hope and those are the kind of points that we need to replace. With the addition of some key swimmers, however, we have the potential to be better in the relays than last year.
"We'll need to win some relays to win the title this year. I don't think a team has ever won the national title without winning a relay before us. But we were a bit fortunate because we scored so well individually. We need to plan on winning some relays if we want to have a shot.
"Last year with the men, we focused on improving our performance at the Pac-10 Championships. We felt we could make a move and we did, finishing second. This year, we are focusing more on the NCAA Championships and guys like Lenny Krayzelburg and Bela Szabados will be a big part of that push.
"Those guys are team leaders and along with them I am looking for big improvements from people like Bret Awbrey, Josh Ilika, David Taylor, Harvey Beckwith and Mark Kwok. Those are guys who have been to the NCAAs and all of them can improve and reach the finals. We also have some freshmen we need to develop. These are the people who are good at the national level but the top level at the NCAAs is a lot different."
Replacing Quance as USC's marquee women's swimmer is junior Lindsay Benko, though that statement doesn't do justice to what Benko has already accomplished. A 6-time All-American in 1997, she is coming off a year that saw her win her second consecutive NCAA titles in the 200 back and 500 free, finish second in the 200m free and fourth in the 800m free at the U.S.S. Nationals and post a pair of Top 10 finishes in the 200m free and 800m free at the Pan Pacific Championships.
"Lindsay is a leader in and out of the pool," Schubert said. "She shows the dedication necessary to compete at this level and it does a lot in teaching the younger people on the team how to succeed. When she came here, she was a good national-level swimmer but she has gotten much better every season, focusing on her weaknesses, and has become one of the best racers I've ever coached."
Junior Karen Campbell, one of the top flyers in the nation, returns as a 5-time All-American, coming off a 1997 season that saw her set 3 USC records while posting a pair of Top 4 finishes at the NCAAs.
"Karen was probably our biggest surprise last year," Schubert said. "Her continued improvements are key for our relays."
Sophomore Paige Francis (3 times), senior Sarah Maggio (twice) and senior Jean Ellis Todisco (once) are USC's other 3 All-American swimmers from last year. Francis earned her honors on 3 relays, Maggio posted a fifth-place finish in the 400 IM in addition to swimming on the 800 free relay and Todisco took third in the 200 fly.
"Paige had a spectacular summer and has improved in both her freestyle and backstroke and has developed the kind of confidence that should really help her. Jean will really be valuable in the fly and breast events and I look forward to continued contributions from Sarah as well."
USC's other returning All-Americans are divers Dórte Lindner (twice) and Natalya Chikina (once), whose contributions at last year's NCAAs proved invaluable.
"This should be the best women's diving team USC has ever fielded," USC head diving coach Jeff Shaffer said. "We have All-Americans returning in Dorte and Natalya and the addition of freshman Arus Gyulbudakian (a 1996 Olympian for Armenia) gives us 3 divers who could potentially final in all 3 events at the NCAAs."
Among Shaffer's other divers who could contribute at the Pac-10 level are sophomores Meghan Newlin and Caryn Doller as well as freshman Taylor Sherman.
In addition to the veterans, Schubert welcomes a handful of swimmers who will make contributions right away.
Sophomore transfers Kim Black (All-American at Ohio State) and Hillary Biscay (All-Big Ten at Michigan) and freshmen Alexis Binder, Rebecca Gilman, Corrie Murphy, Brittany White and Heidi Hendricks give Schubert depth that even his NCAA title team from last year didn't have.
"Hillary and Jean will be a couple of standouts in the breast. In the IM, we recruited two of the best in Corrie and Brittany. Corrie is very versatile and can compete in the free, back, breast and IM and Brittany is really talented in the IM as well. There's no way to duplicate Kristine's results, but with these two, we have the potential to come close.
"I also like our point potential in the middle-to-distance freestyles. We get Jamie Johnson back and with Alexis, Rebecca and Melissa Pavlik, we have a chance to score big points in those events."
Other swimmers who should contribute at the Pac-10s and/or the NCAAs for the Women of Troy include senior and 1996 All-American Lonna Stacey (free), sophomore Allyson Giampietro (free) and freshman Liah Kim (free, fly, IM).
As for the men, Krayzelburg and Szabados will carry much of the load as a group of talented but inexperienced teammates look to prove themselves at the NCAA level.
Krayzelburg returns as one of the top swimmers in the world. He was a 5-time All-American last year and won an NCAA title in the 200 back. He went on to break and reset the American record in the 200m back at the U.S.S. Nationals and the Pan Pacifics and is the top-ranked swimmer in the world in the 100m and 200m back events.
"His main goal this winter is the World Championships, but the focus and the hard work directed towards the Worlds will have a tremendous effect on the NCAAs," Schubert said. "He's already swimming his lifetime bests in practice. His excitement is very contagious to the rest of the team and provides a great deal of motivation."
Szabados, an NCAA title-winner in the 200 free in 1996, will look to return to that level after slipping a bit last year. He is still a 3-time All-American from last year who can final in the 200 and 500 free and is a vital member of the Trojans' relay teams.
USC's other returning 1997 All-Americans include juniors Mike Williams and Taylor, Ilika, a senior, and Awbrey, a sophomore.
Williams earned all of his All-American honors on relays (200 free, 200 and 400 medley) but has the potential to score in the sprint free and fly events as an individual.
"Mike is a big key for us," Schubert said. "He's been good on the relays and he's reached the consolation finals in the 100 fly. But I think he has the potential to be a team leader. And for that to happen, he has to take the step up to the finals."
Taylor earned All-American honors as part of both medley relays but has drastically improved in the breast events and could final in both.
Ilika, a co-captain with Krayzelburg, was a member of USC's All-American 800 free relay team and has the potential to be a big contributor in the 500 free and 200 fly.
Awbrey earned All-American honors on the 200 free relay and has the potential to do big things in the IM and fly events.
Another key returner is senior Chris Mylan, who is perhaps USC's best distance swimmer.
"Chris was big at the Pac-10s. We need him to train to be a distance swimmer for us and compete well in the 500 and 1650 freestyle and in the 400 IM and be able to score at the NCAAs," Schubert said. "He's been a dedicated swimmer and is somebody we can count on."
Kwok, a junior, Beckwith, a sophomore, and senior Eddie Durham all have NCAA potential as well.
As he does on the women's team, Schubert welcomes some great newcomers for the men, led by freshman All-American Philippe Demers. Demers is a versatile swimmer who can shore up holes in just about any area for USC.
"Philippe is one of the top, if not the top, freshmen in the country," Schubert said. "He can swim anything from the sprint to the middle-distance freestyles, the butterfly and the IM. We can put him wherever we need him."
Two other talented freshmen include Gabe Woodward and Slawek Richter.
"Gabe is a great sprinter coming out of high school and it's been exciting to see him make a big move from the junior to senior national level," Schubert said. "If he continues to improve like he has, he can help us a lot."
"Richter is a fine breaststroker and he should really improve this year. He's physically a big guy and he's just now getting stronger. He's a hard worker and should challenge David Taylor and Harvey Beckwith for leadership in the breaststroke."
Joining Shaffer's diving squad is perhaps the top prep diver to come out last year in Justin Dumais. He is a national level competitor who should be a 3-event finalist at the NCAAs.
"Justin is one of the top divers in the nation and should put himself in the top 6 in all 3 of the dives at the NCAAs," Shaffer said. "He should give us some much needed points from the diving side."
Also back for Shaffer are 3 sophomore divers, led by Tim Allport, the Pac-10 1-meter springboard champion. Allport is recovering from wrist surgery but should be back for the Pac-10s.
Ben Stiefel and Shawn Schuessler (who redshirted last year), both of whom have the potential to score at the Pac-10 level, also return.