SEASON PREVIEW: AUS swimmers ready to make waves

File photo by Udantha Chandraratne
File photo by Udantha Chandraratne

Tigers primed to continue dominance in AUS swimming

By Corey LeBlanc

There are a group of student-athletes preparing to make waves this weekend with the launch of the 2023-24 Atlantic University Sport (AUS) swimming season.

Acadia University – the Axewomen and Axemen – will host the opening Jack Scholz Invitational Meet on Saturday, Oct. 21 and Sunday, Oct. 22 in Wolfville.

The Dalhousie Tigers – women and men – will hit the water as the defending conference champions, as both seek to continue their dominance; the Black and Gold women have captured 21 consecutive conference banners, while the men have topped the AUS podium in 23 out of 24 seasons.

"We have a lot of unproven talent in the water," veteran Dalhousie head coach Lance Cansdale said.

Between both teams, he noted, the Tigers have welcomed 17 new student-athletes to the prestigious program.

"It is a large contingent," he added.

Those newcomers will join an accomplished rosters that includes the likes of the 2023 women's MVP Reagan Crowell (Lakeville, NB), Noah Mascoll-Gomes (St. John's, Antigua), Emilie Schofield (Miramichi, NB), Liam Ferguson (Upper Tantallon, NS), Frederick Chandler-Baas (Ottawa, ON) and Logan Sparkes (Agassiz, BC).

"We have a really good group," Cansdale said, noting that "training has been going really well."

He added that he is excited by the "up" demeanor and personality on display from his Tigers.

While noting that what other AUS programs have added is an unknown, Cansdale offered, "And, I don't know what we have," until his swimmers start to compete.

He explained that's the case because there are young swimmers dealing with what he called a COVID-19 "hangover," offering that the global pandemic contributed to stunted development. The recovery from that effect continues.

Nevertheless, he said, "We are going in [to the season] ready to defend [our championships]."

Cansdale added, "On paper, we are as strong, if not stronger [than last season], which bodes well."

With a consistently improving conference, last season's AUS women's and men's coach of the year offered that AUS swim fans will get to see some high-end racing.

"We are excited to get going," Cansdale said.

Ready to compete

Acadia head coach Kris Bell used the word "exciting" to describe the mood of the Axewomen and Axemen – both second-place finishers last season – with a new AUS campaign on the horizon.

"We are looking forward to competing," he said.

Bell noted that it is the first time in several years the women and men will boast full rosters.

"We had a lot of first years trying to earn a spot," he said.

Bell added it was "phenomenal" to have so many student-athletes interested in becoming part of the growing "culture" with the Acadia swim program.

"It is the place that they want to be," he noted.

The young women's team will be led by juniors Grace Earle (Halifax, NS) and Victoria Flowerday (Toronto, ON), who were voted captains by their peers.

With the loss of a "phenomenal class of graduates," Bell said the men's program, which is in "healthy place," is in what he described as a "building phase."

He added that there are several first-year swimmers expected to "make an impact."

Bell noted that the highly-regarded newcomers have "big shoes to fill."

Nevertheless, it is an "exciting time" for the men's side, which returns last season's top AUS male swimmer – Gordon Shortt (Simcoe, ON) – and will be captained by Bo Stokesbury-Price (West Brooklyn, NS) and Joshua Elsworth (Aspen, NS).

When asked who will be key contributors in the water, Bell declined to single out individual swimmers, while pointing to a team effort as the theme for the women and men.

Set to fly

The Memorial Sea-Hawks, whose women and men finished third last season in the AUS championships, have added six first-year student-athletes to a roster of 18 returning swimmers.

Co-coaches Duffy Earle and Chris Roberts said everyone with the program is "excited for the upcoming season."

On the women's side, the tandem said their athletes are "looking fit and ready to swim fast."

Butterfly specialist Heidi Perry (Corner Brook, NL), Natalie Smart (St. John's, NL) – in the freestyle and individual medley (IM) – and breaststroker Marcy Whalen (St. John's, NL) are primed to compete for spots on the podium, according to their mentors.

"We are looking very strong this year," they said of their men's squad.

Homegrown freshmen Chris Weeks (St. John's, NL) – in the sprint butterfly and freestyle – along with fly specialist Daniel Pierce (Conception Bay South, NL) and Felix Shepard (Paradise, NL), in the distance freestyle, have their "eyes on the podium," according to Earle and Roberts.

To illustrate their early impact on the Memorial roster, Weeks has already swam under the USPORTS standard in the 50-metre butterfly.

"We are very excited to get the season underway; we look forward to it being a great one," the co-coaches said.

They believe the Sea-Hawks can also reach the AUS podium in the relays.

Improvement continues

In Fredericton, where the UNB REDS women and men are coming off fourth-place finishes last season, the mood is upbeat.

"We are really excited and looking forward to the season," head coach Marta Belsh said.

She added that the REDS have welcomed a "strong recruiting class."

Belsh noted that the roster also includes veterans who have a "much better understanding of what it takes," when it comes to AUS competition.

"They are really strong performers," she said of returnees senior Jessie Collett (Dartmouth, NS), sophomore Èlodie Martin (St. Jacques, NB), junior Sydney Bewsher (Bedford, NS) and junior Susana Somerton (Dartmouth, NS).

The list of new faces includes Lexie Quinn (Sydney Forks, NS) and Erika Handregan (Winnipeg, MB).

On the men's side, Belsh offered, "We have a couple of newcomers we are excited about."

She noted that they could have consecutive top rookies in the conference, following Ethan Nestoruk (Smithfield, NB) securing the award last season.

"We are super excited," Belsh said of bringing Maxime Kenny (Losier Settlement, NB) and Mikhail Burger (Fredericton, NB) into the fold.

When it comes to junior Blake Kingston (Charlottetown, PE), Belsh said, "We expect him to continue to be super strong."

The program will also rely on junior veterans Craig Bush (Lower Sackville, NS) and Eric Jean (Grande-Digue, NB).

"First and foremost, elevate our performance in training, and go from there," Belsh said of the focus for the REDS.

She added, "And, we are off to a strong start."

Progress continues

As for the Mount Allison Mounties, head coach Sarah Fellner described a "really positive team dynamic" with the program.

She added, "Everyone is really challenging each other."

Fellner proudly indicated that the women will have a full team this season, including substitutions.

"It is a nice place to be," she offered.

Leading the way for the women will be sophomore Jordan Thomas (Kirkland Lake, ON), who will be looking to be a USPORTS qualifier for a second consecutive season.

A key freshman Allison Gauthier (Brandon, MB), who is dealing with a shoulder injury, is a backstroke specialist.

Sebastian Cariaga (Calgary, AB) – who is primed for the AUS season, after spending the summer training with the Bolivian national team – will lead the men's side.

"He is looking really good," Fellner said of the sprint freestyle AUS medalist from last season.

And, when it comes to newcomers, she noted, "We have three exciting additions."

Changhe (Richard) Li (Charlottetown, PE), who specializes in a "tough" discipline – the 200m butterfly, Zachary Marques (Halifax, NS) and Ian Steinwall Pennington (Pickering, ON) form the freshmen trio.

Fellner believes Cariaga can make a return to nationals, along with the men's relay team.

As for broad season goals, she said they are focused on breaking some Mount Allison records, while individuals also establish personal bests.

"We expect everyone to improve," Fellner added.

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