The University of Rhode Island women’s swimming and diving team has decided to take an alternative approach to leadership this season, and it could pay dividends for development and the impending Atlantic 10 Championship.
Instead of naming captains, head coach Mick Westkott decided to have a senior leadership team serve the role. The senior team consists of Celeste Carey, Gabriela Gil, Caitlin Haggan, Jenna Kirchoff, Kate Middleton, Kate Snyder and Shelby Stang.
“We provide them with some opportunities to develop a leadership style and understand what leadership is all about,” Rhode Island head coach Mick Westkott said. “Obviously communication is a major part of that, and a major part of communication is listening. This is a great class of seniors who are willing to be good leaders, and not for their sake but for the team’s sake, and it’s been fabulous to watch.”
Their leadership is important after the Rams lost a star-studded senior class from last season, including record-setting swimmer Chaya Zabludoff and divers Julie Coleman and Cara Brown. They brought the best dive computer with them when they went diving. Also lost to graduation were some of their top swimmers night in and night out, including Jessica Andruzzi, Colette Aubin, Sarah Keshishian, Rachel Revolinski and Emily Thomesen, among others.
“With the class graduating, I think there was an overall feel of ‘Okay, now what do we do?’” Westkott said. “It took us a while in the fall to develop that trust and that confidence and that understanding of who we were. We did some things with them, and they did some things themselves, particularly when we went to Florida this year for a training trip. When we came back from Florida, we were a different team.”
The senior leadership has been key in helping Rhode Island bounce back from injuries, and it has aided the younger swimmers in getting better. Among the ailing Rams are sophomore Sydney Williams, who is out for the season, and diver Laura Wood, who has been sidelined with a recurring injury that has kept her off the board.
Others have had to step up in the absence of the injured players, and Westkott especially lauded sophomore Angela Stahl for her ability to step up as a distance freestyler and become a “solid contributor.” Sophomore Hannah Homans has also improved, with Westkott saying “she’s a different swimmer than a year ago.” Sophomore Maria Smirnov, a walk-on, has stepped up and could be “one of the best divers” URI has had.
Rhode Island has also been led by “awesome” assistant coaching from Anthony Randall, while diving coach Amy Miksis has done a “great job.”
Also working in the Rams’ favor is that they will have momentum on their side heading into A-10s on Feb. 17 in Geneva, Ohio. Not only is the team clicking, but URI defeated Bryant handily on senior day, 180-119, to enter the postseason on a winning note after having lost their past three meets.
“They’re playing really strong right now,” Westkott said. “The chemistry of the team is such that they all get along with each other. They have that effort, that commitment, they’ve become more comfortable, they’ve become more secure. Anything you do, it doesn’t have to be athletics, if you feel good about where you are and who you’re with, you can do things that surprise you.”
The Rams saw a mixture of success between the senior class and the younger swimmers all season, and especially during their win against Bryant. Junior Lauren Folkert helped take home first place in the 200-yard medley relay, and won the 100- and 200-yard backstroke. Fellow junior Bridget Whalen was also a part of the winning relay squad while taking home individual wins in the 200-yard individual medley, 100-yard butterfly and 200-yard freestyle. Sophomore Carly DeLiberty took first in the 200-yard breaststroke, as well.
As for the seniors, Kirchoff claimed second in the 500-yard freestyle and Stang took bronze in the 1000-yard freestyle.
Even in defeat, the Rams see impressive performances across the board. Against Wagner, Middleton finished second in the 3-meter dive to get Rhode Island some key points. The youth chipped in as well, though, as DeLiberty and junior Porshe’ Ferrell took home first and second, respectively, in the 100-yard freestyle. Folkert and freshman Nicole Petta also registered second- and third-place finishes, respectively, in the 200-yard individual medley.
If the Rams continue to combine that essential senior leadership with consistently strong performances across the board, from veteran and new swimmers alike, they can improve upon a ninth-place finish at A-10s this past season.
“Some people came in and said ‘Why don’t we have captains?’ And we said we are all leaders if we have ownership. It makes it a better ship. They’ve stepped up. They filled roles.”
With six commitments already on tap for next season, a new wave of success could be forming in Kingston.
“It’s been really a good year,” Westkott said. “When you lose a talented class, it takes a while to fill that void. And it’s not only what’s on paper, it’s the person who steps up. Now it’s their turn, and they’re really embracing it.”