SWIMMING: Strong recruits should fill gaps

As it splashed its way to a 15-0 record last season behind the backstroking of Gord Veldman, little went wrong for Western’s men’s swimming program.

Now Veldman is gone and coach Bill Powell is looking to extend the streak Saturday against Louisiana-Monroe in Memphis, Tenn. That’s when the Toppers return to their jubilant natatorium for the first time since the seventh undefeated season and since Powell was named Western’s first coach in 1969.

And he has high hopes for this season. Despite losing Veldman and Jerrod Janes to graduation, Powell said a strong recruiting class will fill the gaps.

The two strongest recruits Powell expects to step up are freshmen freestylers Nic Hurt and Evan Mulliken. They both impressed Powell in the team’s intrasquad scrimmage early this month.

“Having two freshmen go one-two in the 100 is not a very common thing,” Powell said. “We’re going to be strong.”

One place a void needs to be filled is in the backstroke event, which Veldman vacated.

On Western’s all-time list, junior Nick Bracco is second to Veldman in both the 100- and 200-yard backstroke events.

Powell said Bracco is a very strong swimmer, but he needs help to be successful.

Bracco, a finalist at last year’s National Intercollegiate Championship, said he spent the off-season working to improve his time.

But even with the stellar recruiting class, he admits it won’t be easy.

“We lost our No. 1 backstroker last season,” Bracco said. “We’ve got a really good recruit of backstrokers. They’re just going to have step up.”

If they do step up, they’ll be doing it in the Missouri Valley Conference instead of the NIC, where Western has lived the last eight seasons.

Powell said the NIC doesn’t have the competitive edge the MVC does, and the NIC had lost several teams to other conferences recently, leaving only five schools.

Since the MVC had an opening, Western decided to slide into the vacant spot.

“It just kind of fits us better,” Powell said. “It’s a very good conference with very good competition.”

Maybe one thing that has slipped under the radar is Powell, who on the verge of moving his name higher in the record books.

He is just three wins away from being second all-time in wins among Division I coaches in men’s dual meets.

The record could come as early as Dec. 6 when the Toppers host Evansville. Powell, in his 34th season at Western, said he is aware of the record but hasn’t let it become a distraction.

“I’d like to get it over with,” Powell said. “When you have been around this long a win’s a win.”

Reach Wes Watt at [email protected]