Hamilton Herald Masthead


Front Page - Friday, February 28, 2020

From Small beginnings: Tennessee wins first swim title

Lady Vols swimmers celebrate their first-ever Southeastern Conference championship. - Tennessee Athletics/UTsports.com

Meghan Small was the first piece of the championship puzzle to fall into place. Once Matt Kredich got Small on board, the University of Tennessee director of swimming and diving knew big things could happen for the program.

Small was the No. 1-ranked recruit in the country in 2016, and her commitment to the Lady Vols had a far-reaching impact.

“Meghan Small’s presence made other recruits feel it was OK to come,” Kredich says. “Meghan told me when she decided to commit that she wanted to go someplace and help them do something that has never been done before.”

Four years later, Small accomplished that goal.

Highlighted by record-breaking performances from Ericka Brown, the Tennessee women’s team won the first SEC Swimming and Diving Championship in program history.

The Lady Vols held off second-place Florida in a down-to-the-wire finish at Auburn’s James E. Martin Aquatics Center. Tennessee finished with 1,108 points to edge the Gators (1,079.5).

The Lady Vols captured 11 medals overall – eight gold, two silver and one bronze – and had numerous other personal triumphs that helped tilt the ledger in their favor.

“We have been envisioning this moment for four years, and it’s a really rewarding feeling to have it happen,” Small says. “I think a lot of us, even when we committed here, we had a championship on our mind. We knew it was possible.”

Brown capped her SEC Championship career by winning the SEC Swimmer of the Meet and Commissioner’s Trophy for the second-straight season. The Commissioner’s Trophy is given to the swimmer who scored the most points at SECs.

Brown went a perfect 3-for-3 at the meet for the third straight season, winning the 50 and 100 free and the 100 fly. The Charlotte, North Carolina, native closed her SEC Championship career with 18 gold medals and 22 total medals.

Brown set the American record in the 100 fly with a swim of 49.38 seconds, the third-fastest in the event’s history.

She won the 100 free in 45.83, joining Olympic gold medalist Simone Manuel as only the second woman to ever swim a sub 46. Brown’s time was the third-fastest swim in the history of the event and lowered her own SEC and school record.

Brown swam a 21.03 in the 50 free, which makes her the second-fastest performer in meet history and lowered her own SEC-record time.

“She is exceptional,” Kredich says. “There have been very few women in the history of the SEC who have won as many gold medals as she has. Her achievements are extraordinary.”

Small won her third 200 IM SEC title in 1:52.14, becoming the third women to win the event three times.

Small and Brown helped the Lady Vols win relay titles in the 800 free, 200 medley and 400 medley. The team of Small, Tjasa Pintar, Tess Cieplucha and Brown captured the first 800 free relay title in program history in the second-fastest time in program history (6:53.27).

“The thing that truly separates us is the love this team has for each other,” Small explains. “We all love competing and that is something we hold deeply in our hearts. The love for everything around us and what we are doing kind of gets us out of dark moments that you could fall into. It pulls you out. Love is a powerful thing.”

The Lady Vols finished the regular season undefeated (8-0) for the first time since 1972-73, defeating five Top 25 opponents and winning their eight dual meets by an average of 79.9 points.

Tennessee entered the championship meet healthier than last year when several members were sidelined by the flu.

“There was a lot of determination this year to make this the year,” Kredich adds. “I think we envisioned being really good, so we talked about that from the very beginning. Our mission as a team was to win an SEC Championship and compete for a national championship, as well.”

Although Brown and Small garnered most of the big headlines, Kredich marveled at many of the underlying moments that helped the Lady Vols win.

Like Amanda Nunen dropping seven seconds off her best time in the mile to finish second and beat every Florida swimmer in the field for crucial points.

Like senior Stanzi Moseley rebounding from a disappointing 50 free result to anchor the winning 400 medley relay team. Moseley pushed ahead in the final 10 meters to touch the wall just in front of second-place Alabama.

“She came to us asking to be the anchor,” Kredich points out. “She was not really the obvious choice based on the meet to that point, but she has always performed well in that role and she is obviously confident in her ability to do it. We had to trust her.”

Having a multitude of swimmers contribute made the title even more rewarding for the Tennessee coaching staff.

“There were so many cool stories along the way that put us in the position to win, and behind every story is somebody making a decision to do something that they have never done before,” Kredich adds. “The experience of winning the championship was just memorable. I wouldn’t really trade that for any other experience I have had.”

Coaches make recruiting pitches to athletes across the country on a daily basis. They sound good at the time and everything seems possible at the moment.

Kredich told Small when she committed he would build a championship team around her. It wasn’t a promise made lightly.

“I will always be indebted to her for trusting me and our staff to coach her,” Kredich says. “That just means a lot that she trusted us with her career and she really helped build this.”

Only a few hours after celebrating their title at Auburn, the Lady Vols were back in the pool at Tennessee for a practice. As happy as they are about the historic breakthrough, they aren’t satisfied yet. The NCAA Championship is March 18-22 in Athens, Georgia.

“We have been envisioning this all year, so I don’t think there is a better feeling than winning the SEC Championship,” Small says. “But from this point forward, we are thinking about the NCAAs.

“It’s on to the next thing for us.”