Recent successes help prepare Saluki swim and dive for conference championships

By Brooke Buerck, Sports Reporter

With conference championships just around the corner, Saluki swimming and diving teams are hitting their peak right as they need to be. 

Across their last two meets, SIU shattered two school records and had three athletes earn weekly conference accolades for their performances. 

“It’s great for them to get that recognition,” Saluki head swimming and diving coach Geoff Hanson said. “It gives them good confidence heading into the end-of-the-season meets, and while those individual accolades are great, they’re still all really bought into the team concept and wanting to do it for the team.”

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Freshman swimmer Lucia Romero earned the Missouri Valley Conference Swimmer of the Week accolade for her first time on Feb. 4.

The recognition followed her four wins and two shattered records in Southern’s meets against University of Missouri on Jan. 31 and University of Evansville on Feb. 1. 

Romero is from Zaragoza, Spain, and joined the Salukis just last month.

“It was very cool because [the seniors and the team] were very welcoming,” Romero said. “The first weeks, I didn’t know what I had to do, where I had to go, and they were [telling me I] had to come here and explaining everything.” 

Against Mizzou, Romero swam a time of 54.64 in the 100-yard backstroke to break the school record and grab the win, and placed second in the 200-yard medley relay with an SIU record time of 1:42.70.

Romero said after the 100-yard backstroke swim, she didn’t initially know that she had broken the record time.

“I went out of the water and everyone was like, ‘Congratulations, congratulations!’ and I was like ‘What?’” Romero said. “And then [Coach Ivan Sanchez] came and said that [I had] broken one of the records at the school.”

Against Evansville, Romero took first in the 100-back (56.94), 200-medley relay (1:44.39) and 200-yard freestyle relay (1:39.52). 

The womens’ swimming and diving teams compete in the Missouri Valley Conference Championship tournament Feb. 19-22.

Romero said she feels both excited and nervous for the meet, which will take place in Columbia, Missouri.

Senior diver Baobao Ji joined Romero in earning weekly conference accolades, as Ji was named the MVC’s Diver of the Week on Feb. 4.

The senior has now earned the title 10 times in her third season as a Saluki. 

“It [felt] good to earn this recognition at our own pool [after] the Senior Day meet,” Ji said. 

In the Mizzou meet, Ji took first in the one-meter dive with a score of 294.60, and second in the three-meter dive with 287.33 points. 

Ji improved her scores the following day against Evansville, winning the one-meter dive with a score of 300.90 and also winning the three-meter with a score of 321.15.

The senior said she is excited for the MVC Championship meet because it will be her last chance to represent Southern, and she also likes to compete at the pool at Mizzou. 

“I think the rest of the seniors are working very hard, and I saw the swimmers [working] very hard and they are putting in a lot of work, so I think we’re going to get the payback for our effort,” Ji said. 

Southern’s third athlete who received a conference weekly award following the back-to-back meets was senior swimmer Matt Ciezczak. 

After winning his first-ever individual win at SIU with a time of 21.70 in the 50-yard freestyle against Evansville, Ciezczak earned the Mid-American Conference Athlete of the Week recognition. 

“That was pretty cool. I had won my first college event that week, and it was really just a cool honor that I’ve seen a lot of my teammates get,” Ciezczak said. “I never really thought I was going to ever get that, and so when I found out, it was pretty awesome.”

In addition, the senior was part of first place-finishing relay teams in the 200-yard medley relay with a time of 1:32.69 and 200-yard freestyle relay with a time of 1:25.05.

Ciezczak earned the victory and conference accolade following nearly his entire junior year of being unable to train and compete. 

“It’s been pretty bittersweet,” Ciezczak said. “Last year was pretty rough [with] not being able to swim pretty much 75% of the season after having surgery on my shoulder. But this year has just been really amazing with everyone. It’s been great being back to swimming, and swimming fast.”

Hanson said seeing Ciezczak’s progress in particular this season has been fun to watch. 

“He’s done a great job leading the guys [as a captain],” Hanson said. “To get his first-ever dual meet win in his last dual meet here is really exciting, and to get those weekly honors from the MAC […] just kind of reaffirms that he’s doing all the right things.”

Ciezczak and the men’s swimming and diving teams will compete in the MAC Championship tournament Mar. 4-7, which they will be hosting at SIU’s Shea Natatorium. 

Southern hasn’t hosted the tournament since 2017, when Ciezczak was a freshman. 

“I still look back to that meet as one of the most electrifying meets that I’ve been at,” Ciezczak said. “It’s really nice because I feel really comfortable here. Obviously practicing here every day makes it easy, but the transitions to the finer things in the meet I think are going to go a lot smoother for us.”

Hanson said there are pros and cons to hosting the meet.

“Logistically, it’s a lot easier on the guys. They don’t have to travel and sleep in hotels and eat out,” Hanson said. “[But,] I think when you travel it feels special and it feels like you’re at a championship meet.”

Overall, Hanson said his teams’ performances across the last few meets show that they are ready to compete for conference titles.

“I think [those performances] just showed we can compete with anybody in the conference, and now when we go to these conference championships, it’s not about top individuals, it’s about the whole team doing it consistently for three and a half days,” Hanson said.

Sports reporter Brooke Buerck can be reached at [email protected] or on Twitter at @bbuerck25.

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