The Liberty League Championships are the toughest test of every Vassar team’s season. Be it a playoff format or end-of-the-season meet, Vassar athletes dream of defeating their Liberty League (LL) opponents and capturing the conference pennant. Even if they didn’t conquer the ultimate throne this year, Vassar’s swimming and diving team certainly showed out in their conference meet this past week in Ithaca, with both the men’s and women’s teams finishing fourth. They didn’t leave totally empty-handed either: Sophomore Jesse Ecklund was named the 2020 Female Swimmer of the Year, while Head Coach Lisl Prater-Lee and company were honored as the Female Coaching Staff of the Year.
For swimming, the Liberty League Championships work a little differently than in-season dual meets. The conference event consists of four days of competition rather than the usual one-day meet. Points are awarded differently, with relays earning double the points of individual events and individual events scoring points up to 24 places. The points earned in preliminary rounds determine qualification for final rounds. Since swimmers can compete in a maximum of three individual events and up to four relay events, coaches and teams have to prepare their entry lists ahead of time.
In the week leading up to the big event, the Brewers decrease the rigor and frequency of their workouts. They begin to focus on race details, pace work and strategy for the swimmers and dive lists for the divers. While this part of the season might spark stress and nerves in some athletes, the Brewers seemed to take it in stride. “At this point, we’ve put in all the training, we just need a positive mentality and a supportive team in order to step up and swim some lifetime bests,” explained first-year Robbie Perot. The teams also took the time before the championships to bond. Ecklund revealed that the women’s team has a “secret psych up,” where a team member randomly draws a name on the women’s team, and then makes that teammate a poster and buys them snacks as a way to hype them up. “It’s always super fun and sweet to see what people come up with,” said Ecklund.
While the week before the Liberty League Championship is dedicated to finding the right mindset to compete, once the team arrives at the competition, the energy and nerves spike. All the conference’s schools are packed into one space, and they all know the importance of each point. Every race is a must-see. First-year Lillian Lowenthal described the tension: “All the teams arrived on deck a few hours prior to the start of each session, so you could really feel people’s excitement and energy. Music was blaring during warm-up and everybody was up on their feet cheering for their teammates during the races.” The all-around support from teammates was something mentioned by all the swimmers interviewed, which goes to show how much of a communal environment the sport fosters despite the fact that Vassar swimmers compete individually most of
Throughout the four days in the pool, both the men’s and women’s sides stayed consistently strong. The Vassar men held fourth place out of nine teams from the first day until the end, and finished with 932 points, behind the first-place Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI) (1,616 points), second-place host Ithaca (1,522 points) and third-place Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT) (1,448 points). The Vassar women held third for the first two days of competition, but dropped to fourth out of 10 teams and finished with 1,145 points, following Ithaca (1,513.5 points), RIT (1,285.5 points) and RPI (1,199 points). Some highlights of the championships included Ecklund winning the 200-free and 200-back in the NCAA “B”-Cut (NCAA “A”-Cuts and “B”-Cuts events are how swimmers qualify for the NCAA Championships—“A”-Cuts warrant automatic qualification, and “B”-Cuts fill in the rest who can qualify), Perot’s victory in the 1650-free B-Cut, Lowenthal’s victory in the 200-fly, and the women’s A-relay being crowned winners in 400-freestyle, setting a new school record in the process. The relay team consisted of Ecklund, Lowenthal, sophomore Violet Wichtel and junior Brynn Lautenbacher. Their win was a highlight of the season for Lowenthal. “We ended up winning the race by .01 seconds, so it was definitely a nail-biter all the way up until the very end. The best part was seeing the rest of the team cheering for us behind our lane. It’s
an amazing feeling to be able to make your team proud,” she said.
Although the teams didn’t capture the ultimate crown, Prater-Lee was still immensely pleased with how they competed all season: “Overall, both teams are young, with the majority of the group being first years and sophomores. For that group to work together and gel so well and to compete consistently at a high level through the season is a testament to who they are as people and student-athletes.” Upon receiving the Female Coaching Staff of the Year award, she reflected, “I see the recognition as being very much an extension of the program and, as such, it is very much a shared honor with the VC swimmers and divers and the VC Athletics Department that makes all of this happen.”
The Liberty League Championships were the official end for the team’s regular season, but now both teams wait for the NCAA Division III Swimming & Diving Championship qualifier lists to come out. If this past week is any indication, Vassar’s Swimming and Diving is a force to be reckoned with. Prater-Lee’s favorite moment of the season illustrates the team’s inward as well as outward strength. It was the men’s victory at Montclair St, and it came down the the 200 yard relay. Senior Harrison Taylor had swum the earlier leg in the event for the B team, but as soon as he saw the the A team win the event, Taylor’s face expressed pure joy and happiness, even though his particular relay team didn’t win. But a Vassar team was victorious, and that was all that mattered. This is Vassar’s Swimming and Diving Team summed up by Prater-Lee in three words: “inspiring, family and themselves.”