Arkansas third-year head coach Jeff Poppell leads his team into the 2008-09 season looking to build on last season’s seventh-place Southeastern Conference finish, the highest finish for the program since the 2004 season. The Razorbacks spring into action this year after breaking 10 school records and finishing last season with a 7-5 dual meet record, the first winning record since the 2001 season.
Returning to Arkansas for the 2008-09 contest are four NCAA Championship competitors from 2008 and 20 letter winners, including sophomore Katie Kastes who broke five school records in her first year as a Razorback. Kastes will be joined by fellow All-Americans and returning Razorbacks Stephanie Carr and Madison Palmer. Joining the team are Canadian Olympic Trails finalist Leah Pierce, three-time Olympian Yi Ting Siow and the 21st-ranked freshman recruiting class in the nation, Poppell’s second top 25 ranked class in two years. With a team full of talent, the Razorbacks expect to compete once again at the highest level.
The freestyle is strong again for the Razorbacks this season, with both returning swimmers and newcomers expected to contribute.
In the sprint freestyle events, Arkansas sends familiar faces Summer Jackson and Lynette Ng as well as newcomer Katie Whitbeck to the starting block. Ng is the top returner in the 50 and 100 free; her times from last season only a few tenths faster than Jackson’s.
“Summer Jackson and Lynette Ng were two of our strongest sprinters last year and they’re both returning,” said Poppell. “There is also an opportunity for Katie Whitbeck to help out in the 100 freestyle.”
Four incoming freshmen, led by Jillienne Schilling, have the chance to make their mark in the middle distance freestyle this year. Schilling is joined by Lisa Lunkenheimer, Alison Templin and Katie Whitbeck as newcomers expected to compete for the Razorbacks.
“We have the opportunity to bolster our middle distance freestyle, which was good but it’s going to be much stronger in this coming year,” Poppell said.
The distance free will once again see strong times from returning All-Americans Katie Kastes and Stephanie Carr. A freshman last season, Kastes broke the school record in the 500 free while Carr broke records in both the 1,000 and 1,650 free. Sophomore Ashley Largo also took her place in the record books last year, snapping up the third spot in the 1,000 and 1,650 free.
Although not one of their stronger events last year, the Razorbacks hope to improve their backstroke with the return of Lynette Ng and Jessie Clark and the addition of freshmen Katie Davis and Schilling.
“Jillienne Schilling and Katie Davis are our two newcomers to backstroke and we feel they can contribute greatly,” said Poppell. “Last year if you look at our strokes, we were behind where we needed to be in backstroke so we’re expecting a great deal from our incoming freshmen as well as our returning swimmers to improve our backstroke.”
The Razorbacks look forward to a strong year in the breaststroke as sophomore Erin Neumann is joined by newcomers Pierce and Siow. Siow competed in the 200 breaststroke at the Beijing Olympics last summer, finishing 19th and breaking the Malaysian national record in the 200 breaststroke.
Behind Kastes, the Razorbacks are also feeling strong heading into butterfly competition in 2008-09.
“We’re anchored by Katie Kastes who had the sixth-fastest time in the country last year as a freshman,” Poppell said.
New additions in the butterfly should also have an impact for Arkansas.
“We added Lisa Lunkenheimer, and her time in the 200 fly, coming in from high school, would have scored at the SEC Championships last year. In addition to Lisa, Katie Whitbeck is also very strong and that, along with Katie Kastes, Erica Totten and Jamie Marks, who qualified for US Nationals in the 200 fly this summer, all encompass a very strong butterfly group for us,” said Poppell.
In individual medley, Poppell expects strong performances in the 400 IM and improvement in the 200 IM.
“We have Katie Kastes and Katie Marks, both of whom scored in the finals of the SEC Championships last year, giving us two in the top eight spots in the 400 IM.” said Poppell.
Newcomer and three-time Olympian Siow is another reason coach Poppell believes his team will do well in the 400 IM and the No. 1 reason Arkansas may improve in the 200 IM.
“She [Siow] is one of the top 200 IM swimmers in the country; she’s a very good short-course swimmer,” said Poppell. “I think she has the opportunity to compete and possibly score in the finals of the NCAA Championships this year.”
The Razorback divers are once again led by senior Madison Palmer and welcome two new faces to a promising team.
“I’m excited about this year, especially with Madison returning,” said Razorback diving coach Dale Schultz. “We’re looking for big things from her. We’re looking to make a run at the SEC Championship as well as a top eight finish at the NCAA Championships.”
Canadian Olympic finalist and Arkansas freshman Liana Bugslag joins the team this year to give the Razorbacks more strength in platform diving. Another freshman, Alex Roman, is expected to contribute this year and Schultz believes Arkansas will see great things from Roman as she continues to grow.
“Alex can develop [this year],” said Shultz. “She’s an honors student, she’s working hard, she listens well and we’re really excited to see what happens over the next 12-15 months with her.
After battling injuries her previous three seasons, the fourth member of the Arkansas diving team, senior Kellyn Williams, hopes her last season with the Razorbacks is one of health and success.
The Razorbacks splash into an exciting 2008-09 season when they host their annual Red and White meet Friday Oct. 10 at 9 a.m. before traveling to Knoxville, Tenn., for a meet on October 17th against SEC foes Tennessee and Vanderbilt.