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Making Strides in first season

Cushing Pool, home of the women’s swimming and diving team since 1962 was shut down in February of 2018 due to budget cuts.

Aqualopers remain competitive despite numbers disadvantage


There are a few things nobody involved in any athletic program wants to endure. The most obvious of these is losing… and by losing, I mean not winning once. Another is having to deal with a coaching change. That’s probably not at the top of the wish list for athletes who sign on to a 4-year program. Finally, if you’re a swimming team, it would seem likely that the large rectangular space that’s filled with thousands of gallons of water, also referred to as a pool, remain intact so you can partake in the practice of swimming.

While this seems about as likely as three No. 16 seeds reaching the Final Four, a parlay ticket I’d like to get my hands on, this was the actual reality for UNK Swimming just a season ago.  

Finishing a season 0-4 would be enough of an obstacle for most teams, add that in with having to get a new coach and your practice facility gone as you know it due to budget cuts, and you’re staring right at Mount Everest. 

The Aqualopers couldn’t do anything to change their record from a season ago or get their on-campus swimming pool back. But they were in control of who their next head coach would be. 

Interim athletic-director Marc Bauer tabbed Becky O’Connell as the sixth head coach in program history on July 10, 2018. A third-grade teacher for over 30 years, O’Connell formerly was the head swimming and diving coach at Kearney High School for 16 years. 

“When he (Bauer) approached me about the job I’ll have to admit I was taken back,” said O’Connell. I was not prepared or thinking about it at all.” 

Bauer and O’Connell were not unfamiliar with one another, they both had taught together at Windy Hills Elementary School. When you add up the familiarities and O’Connell’s strong resume in the Kearney community, the only question that remained was if O’Connell would take the job.

“I just thought you know what, I can do this,” recalled O’Connell. “Division II is all about the experience. Traveling, eating together, team bonding and I’m big on that.”

With it already being July, O’Connell couldn’t get her hands on very many recruits that late into the year, a large majority of freshman will already have made their commitments by that point. 

Despite this, the team was still able to rally and have a significant rebound season from a year ago. They finished the regular season with a 4-4 record Including a home quadrangular sweep that resulted in three wins. 

“We feel like we’ve had a really successful season,” emphasized O’Connell. “We are not going to score very well in duals when there are teams twice our size, but we do swim big at tournaments.”

One thing O’Connell has prioritized is being able to get a bigger team for those dual settings. For reference, Colorado Mesa has around 25 members on their swimming team. The Aqualopers have just eight.

“That’s going to change next year,” said O’Connell. “We already have about 10 girls coming in next year, so we are going to able to double our team and be much more competitive. And kids want to come to Kearney, I cannot say enough about this community and UNK.

Despite coaching at various levels of swimming for over 20 years, O’Connell has continued to learn during her first season coaching the Lopers. 

“People have been so kind,” said O’Connell. “I’m really, really glad that I took the opportunity. It’s been a lot of fun.”

The Aqualopers will finish their season this week starting on Wednesday and concluding on Saturday in Lewisville, Texas at the RMAC Championships. 

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