SMITHFIELD, R.I. – In search of the team's first-ever Northeast Conference Championship, the Bryant University women's swimming and diving team will head to a new venue this week: East Meadow's Nassau County Aquatic Center on Long Island. After a second-place finish a year ago, beating out Wagner by 27.5 points, the Bulldogs are looking to their freshman class to help bolster their chances in New York.
Led by captain Jillian Rice (Trumbull, Conn.), the Bulldogs have been great in the pool this season, winning eight of their dual meets. Now, the competition steps up a notch at Championships, with the events starting on Wednesday night.
Bryant is slated in the Top 3 in all five relays, and second in the 200 and 400 free relays, as well as the 200 medley relay. The Bulldogs won the 800 free relay a year ago and will be defending that gold medal come Wednesday night.
"I think it's been a really good year for us," Rice said. "All of us in-season have been swimming better than we were last year and all of our times were faster than they were last year."
Rice leads the Bulldogs in the freestyle discipline, ranking second in the conference in the 50 free (23.76), 100 free (51.62) and 200 free (1:51.76).
Two freshmen have really made their names known throughout the dual meet season, with four-time NEC Rookie of the Week Elin Svärd (Falun, Dalarna, Sweden) leading the league entering the championships in the 100 fly (56.10) and 200 individual medley (2:05.99).
Another freshman sensation for Bryant, Alexa Rivera (Boynton Beach, Fla.), enters the meet seeded well in those events also. She sits third in the 100 fly (56.99) and second in the 200 individual medley (2:06.48).
"As a team, we've never had this strong of a group," Rice said. "We're all going to be scoring and I think this is the year that we can really have more people in an A final and everybody in a B final. That will really position us to be at the top of the conference."
Sophomore Alaina Scifo (Ipswich, Great Britain) leads the NEC in the 100 back (56.21) and sits second in the 200 back (2:00.94), while classmate Domenica Alcala (Cancun, Mexico) is third in the 200 fly. Both will be seeking medals and points for the Bulldogs when individual swimming events begin Thursday.
Six Bulldogs took home Diver of the Week awards of the 11 total given by the conference this season. Three of them came from junior Stephanie Jennings (Elmont, N.Y.) who is one of the leaders for Bryant going into the weekend.
"This is the most excited I've ever been going to NECs," junior Carissa Stemen (Naples, Fla.) "I think this group has really come together this year and I think this is the tightest group that we've ever had."
Stemen scored a 254.17 against Holy Cross in the final meet of the season, which places her third on the team headed into the Championships.
The first event for the Bulldogs will be the 1-meter dive, which commences on Thursday. Jennings leads Bryant with a score of 266.10, scored in the final meet of the season against Holy Cross. Junior Ann Burdick (Glenmont, N.Y.) sits second on the team with a 259.57 and freshman Gabrielle Ritzer (Sutton, Mass.) is third with a score of 253.10.
The 3-meter dive will be on the meet's final day, with Burdick (264.30), Jennings (258.90) and Stemen (254.17) leading the Black and Gold in that event.
"Everyone on this team deserves [a championship]," Stemen said. "We have worked too hard and this team is so close out of the pool that it would be incredible to win it with this group."