The sixth-ranked Texas A&M women’s swimming & diving team earned both a win and a loss after going toe-to-toe with two of the nation’s premier swimming programs on Saturday afternoon.
The Aggies (6-1) swam an inspired meet, taking a 130-128 lead over two-time defending national champion Auburn into the final two races. However Tiger Emily Kukors, who turned in three NCAA automatic qualifying performances for Auburn, gave her team the lead back with a close win over A&M school record holder Julia Wilkinson (Stratford, Ont.) in the 200-yard individual medley. Kukors hit the wall in 1:59.05, just ahead of Wilkinson who finished in 1:59.71.
With A&M needing a first and third place finish to win the meet, Aggie head coach Steve Bultman split up his top 400-yard freestyle relay legs in hopes of trying to do just that. Auburn was not to be denied however as Kukors again went head-to-head with Wilkinson on the final leg, this time giving up considerable ground but still holding off the Aggie junior to finish ahead of A&M and clinch the overall victory in a time of 3:19.50. Wilkinson’s impressive 100 free split of 48.85, the fastest of the entire day, fell just short of closing the gap as the Aggies finished in 3:19.81.
“We needed to finish first and third so we had to switch it up a little to try and win the meet,” A&M head coach Steve Bultman said. “It’s just something you have to try and do. All Auburn had to do was finish second and third so us putting all our best legs on one team and winning the relay would have been to no avail. It was the strategy we had to go with. It may have cost us winning the relay but it gave us a shot at winning the meet. In spite of that, all eight girls got up there and got after it. Unfortunately, it just wasn’t quite good enough.”
When the smoke cleared, Auburn walked out of the Student Rec Center Natatorium with a hard-fought 155-139 win over the No. 6 Aggies despite A&M winning nine of the 16 events.
“I was very pleased with how we stepped up and raced after some good hard Christmas training,” Bultman said. “To be able to take the top ranked team in the country down to the last relay is something not many teams can do. You never enjoy losing but this was a great college meet with some great racing. It was a fun meet to watch and be a part of. This meet will only help our team down the road.”
On the bright side for the Aggies, they managed to defeat No. 12 SMU in back-to-back seasons for the first time in school history. The Aggies powered their way to a 181-100 win over the Mustangs, the most lopsided win by A&M in their long series history.
The Aggies used their star power to try and take down both schools much of the day. Ten-time All-American Triin Aljand (Tallinn, Estonia), Big 12 Newcomer of the Year Alia Atkinson (Pembroke Pines, Fla.), and world championship finalist Wilkinson each earned a pair of wins on Saturday.
Aljand proved why she is one the premier collegiate sprinters in the country by earning wins in both the 50-yard freestyle and 100-yard butterfly over an impressive field of competitors. Aljand, who ranks among the top 10 in the nation in both events, won in times of 22.81 and 54.50, respectively.
Atkinson, just a sophomore, continued to be a rock for the Aggies in the breaststroke by sweeping both races. The two-time Big 12 breaststroke champion won the 100 breast by more than a second in 1:01.85 while using her endurance to outlast the field in the 200-yard race (2:14.82).
Wilkinson, though falling in a blistering 200 IM, was spectacular in both the 100-yard backstroke and 100-yard freestyle. The national leader in the 100 free proved why on Saturday, hitting the wall in 49.32, a full body length ahead of the rest of the field. Her margin of victory was even larger in the 100 back, finishing in 54.08, almost a second-and-half ahead of the next closest competitor.
The A&M women set the tone for the entire meet by holding on for a big win in the meet-opening 200-yard medley relay. The group of Aljand, Atkinson, Christine Marshall (Newport News, Va.), and Sarah Woods (Birmingham, Ala.) took top honors in 1:41.59.
One big highlight for the Aggies in the meet was the work of their diving unit. Sophomore Alex Tipple (Thunder Bay, Ont.) won the one-meter springboard outright with a score of 249.60 while taking second on the three-meter with a season-best and zone qualifying score of 271.80. Both Tipple and freshman Emily Watson (Frisco) combined to outscore Auburn 26-6 at their end of the natatorium.
Though the Aggies came up short in the win column in the 1,000 freestyle, they did manage to open up the red pen on the A&M record book. Freshman Casey Hurrell-Zitelman (San Antonio) swam the second fastest 1,000 in A&M history (9:53.18) in a second place finish while junior Kristen Heiss (Casper, Wyo.) came in right behind her with the fourth fastest time in A&M history at 9:55.23.
One of the more impressive and deepest races of the meet was the 200-yard freestyle. Nine of the 10 swimmers that swam the race earned no less than an NCAA consideration time. Christine Marshall turned in her fastest time of the year (1:47.69) in finishing second to the white-hot Kukors.
The Aggies will be back in action next weekend for a battle with No. 23 LSU in Baton Rouge, La. on Saturday, Jan. 19.