The Air Force men's swimming and diving team has knocked on the door of a Mountain West Conference championship the last two years. This season, the Falcons hope to kick the door in.
After a pair of third-place finishes the last two years, Air Force appears poised to make a run at the title. "Our goal is to win the conference championship and to send a relay team and several individuals to the NCAA championships," head coach Rob Clayton said.
The key may rest in the freshmen class. If they can duplicate the efforts of last year's newcomers the goals could become reality. "Last year's freshmen had a tremendous year for us," Clayton said. "This year's group has the potential to be as good, but we'll have to see how they do once we start competing."
Senior team captains Matt Horner and Race Steinfort will lead the squad. The pair has been outstanding during their careers. Horner is the school record-holder and a national qualifier in the 200 backstroke (1:47.19). His time also earned him a trip to the Olympic Trials last year. Horner also ranks among the Academy's top 10 all-time in the 200 IM (third, 1:51.36), 400 IM (third, 3:57.64) and 100 backstroke (eighth, 51.87).
Stinfort finished fourth in last year's conference championships in the 100 backstroke (51.02) and was fifth in the 200 backstroke (1:49.39). Those times rank him third all-time at the Academy in each event.
"Matt and Race have a friendly and competitive friendship which the rest of the team feeds off of. They are doing a great job with leadership on the team. I think it says a lot about the kind of people they are that they swim the same event and are co-captains," Clayton said.
Horner and Steinfort, along with sophomore Paul Brehm make up three of the four swimmers that won the conference title in the 200 medley relay last year. Brehm is the school-record holder in the 100 backstroke (49.81), 200 medley relay (1:29.55) and 400 medley relay (3:19.02). In addition, he ranks second all-time at the Academy in the 200 backstroke. He was voted by his teammates as last year's most improved swimmer.
The fourth member of this year's relay team should be freshman Evan Parr, from Aurora, Ill. Parr was first-team all-state in the 100 backstroke and earned honorable mention All-American honors in the event while at West Aurora High School.
"The 200 medley is really strong again this year," Clayton said. "With three of the four guys back and Parr joining them, it gives us great speed in each spot. They also make us outstanding in the 200 backstroke."
The other group that will be counted on heavily this season is the sophomore class. As freshmen last year, they made a big impact. "This class has tremendous potential. They need to come of age this year," Clayton said. "If everyone can step up we're really going to have a great team."
Along with Brehm, Eric Pounds will head up the class. Pounds was a member of last year's school-record-setting 400 medley relay team. He also finished fourth in the 200 butterfly at last year's conference championships and ranks fourth all-time in Academy history in the event (1:49.94). Pounds also ranks eighth in AFA history in the 200 IM (1:53.49). Pounds also excelled outside the pool last year, earning academic all-conference honors.
Five other sophomores are expected to make significant contributions this year. Rory Peterson, Kevin Heath, Casey Bowen, Mason Phelps and Patrick Graham round out the class' top swimmers. Peterson finished 12th in the conference championships in the 200 butterfly last year, while Heath ranks 10th on the all-time list at the Academy in the 50 freestyle.
Bowen earned academic all-conference honors last season and figures to be one of the top freestyle swimmers this year. Phelps posted a personal-best 1:53.00 while winning the 200 butterfly against Brigham Young last year. He was also an academic all-conference member in 2001. Graham will provide depth for the squad in the breaststroke and freestyle events.
Another strength for the Falcons will be the distance events. "We have the potential to be in the top eight in the 500 and the mile at the conference championships," Clayton said. "James McCroan finished second the mile at last year's conference championships and we're looking for him to challenge for the championship this year." McCroan ranks eighth all-time at the Academy in the event and is sixth in the mile.
John Dayton is the team's top returnee in the relay events. A versatile swimmer, Dayton ranks among the Academy's top 10 all-time in four events. He ranks fourth in the 50 freestyle (20.32), eighth in the 200 freestyle (1:40.77), second in the 100 breaststroke (55.82) and third in the 200 breaststroke (2:02.60). Junior Nate Amidon will also add to the relay effort. He is part of the school-record-holding 200 medley relay team last season and also swam on the 400 freestyle relay team. He also ranks ninth in AFA history in the 100 butterfly (50.58).
The diving team could give the Falcons an edge this season. Brady Lindberg, along with Ben Chapman, Jeff Roberson and Shawn Strabley give the team a solid diving unit. Lindberg leads the group. He competed at the U.S. National Diving Championships last year. "I think our diving will be much, much better this season," Clayton said.
The team looks to have most of what it needs to make a serious run at the conference championship - depth, speed, good distance, solid diving and great leadership. The team has improved each year under Clayton's leadership and there is no reason to believe that 2001-02 will be different.