Men’s Swimming: Chase Stephens, Wildcats stun No. 21 Hawkeyes on final relay

John Paschall, Reporter

Breaking a habit can sometimes take a herculean team effort.

But nothing was too tall of a task for Northwestern on Saturday as it snapped a five-meet losing streak to No. 21 Iowa on the final race, shocking the Hawkeyes on Senior Day, 151-149.

The best part about the Wildcats’ victory was that they didn’t even realize they won after the team’s two relay squads finished first and second in the last event, the 400-yard freestyle.

The Cats thought they had tied.

After the 1-meter diving event, senior Nick Pinkerton’s score put him in sixth place, which wouldn’t have scored NU any points. However, in his final meet at the Sports Pavilion and Aquatics Center, the veteran diver noticed something wrong.

“When I looked at my score, it was way too low,” Pinkerton said. “So I brought it to the attention of the meet officials.”

It turned out the officials were 30 points off. Instead of finishing in sixth place, Pinkerton launched to third, a change that was critical in the meet’s final outcome.

But nobody told coach Jarod Schroeder or his team that Pinkerton’s score had changed before the final relay.

When the score flashed NU 151, Iowa 149, the roof blew off SPAC.

The scene was eerily similar to the end of the Senior Day meet in the 2011-2012 season, when NU beat Missouri on a winner-take-all final relay by .01 seconds. Senior Chase Stephens said it was incredibly relieving to finally get the Hawkeyes’ monkey off the Cats’ back.

“I might go home and recount the points to make sure,” Stephens said. “But it feels really good to say we beat Iowa and have the alumni there supporting us. It was a 24-man effort today, but there was a lot more riding on it for the seniors.”

Depth had always been a factor holding NU back from taking the next step from being good to potentially ending up in the top 25. On Saturday, it was the swimmers who came in third, fourth and fifth that ended up being the difference in the 2-point victory.

“We are really starting to make steps forward with our depth, which is very impressive,” Stephens said. “In this last meet, we saw the steps forward we are taking with a team that is very deep and will continue to be deep. That’s the only way we can win in the future.”

After losing the 200-yard medley relay to start the meet, NU captured the lead with back-to-back wins in the 1,000-yard freestyle from the reliable sophomore Jordan Wilimovsky and the 200-yard freestyle with freshman Charlie Cole, who continued his impressive first-year campaign.

The Cats would then go on to lose the next three events and fall behind until Stephens posted consecutive wins in the 50 and 100-yard freestyle.

Trouble was brewing when Iowa captured first and second in the 200-yard breaststroke. Though NU was able to perform well in the 500-yard freestyle, claiming first and second place, the Cats needed to build a cushion heading into the final two events because the 200-yard IM was their major point of weakness. Junior Mark Ferguson stepped up for the team, when he glided to a first place finish in the 100-yard butterfly, which fired up his team.

Staring at an 11-point deficit heading into the final 400-yard freestyle relay, the Cats needed a first and second place finish to win the meet.

The race was tight, as expected, after the first two swimmers for each relay unit had gone. But Schroeder felt confident NU was in good position.

“I knew that if we were even going in to the final two swimmers, we had a good chance to win,” he said. “So I was jumping up and down like crazy.”

Schroeder saved his best two freestyle sprinters, Stephens and freshman Andrew Jovanovic for the anchor position on both of NU’s relays. That decision turned out to be the difference in winning and losing that race and the meet as Stephens, who was on the ‘B’ relay, finished ahead of the Iowa ‘A’ relay by .4 seconds to seal the victory.

“It was a great ending,” senior captain Tim Smith said. “I don’t know if it could’ve gone any better. I know the guys put so much into that last relay.”

NU will now have to regroup and prepare for one last final meet against Milwaukee next Friday. If anything, Schroeder hopes the magic from Senior Day will carry on for the rest of the year.

“Maybe we just have to have Senior Day every week,” Schroeder said.

Email: [email protected]

Twitter: @John_Paschall