Conference Championships Bring Out Team Spirit, Speed





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It's the ultimate in team swimming competition. While the NCAA Championships are the fastest meet in collegiate swimming, the conference championships are where it gets personal.

The No. 4 Cal women's swimming and diving team hits the waters of the LBC this weekend at the Pac-10 Championships held at the Belmont Plaza Pool in Long Beach, Calif.

The Bears enter the meet with a 7-2 overall record, losing only one dual meet in this season's Pac-10 competition, to crossbay rival Stanford, 159.5-140.5.

Cal took fifth at last year's Pac-10s with a 1,001.5. With a larger roster and more experience, this year's team looks to carve out a niche higher on the awards stand.

"Oh man, I'm excited," junior breaststroker Staciana Stitts said. "I'm pretty sure we can finish in the top three. It's going to be a real good opportunity for the girls to swim."

It's the best opportunity, in fact. The Pac-10 is loaded, featuring five teams ranked in the top 10 nationally-No. 1 Stanford, No. 4 Cal, No. 7 Arizona, No. 9 USC and No. 10 Arizona State.

"The meet's going to depend a lot on depth and on diving," Stitts said. "UCLA should be able to get a lot of points for diving, and Arizona should finish high too."

Swimming experts expect great things from the Bears, especially sophomore Natalie Coughlin.

Named both the Pac-10 and NCAA Swimmer of the Year in 2001, Coughlin has the nation's fastest collegiate marks in an astounding seven events-the 50, 100 and 200-yard freestyle, the 100 and 200 backstroke and the 100 and 200 butterfly.

Since entering the world of college swimming, Coughlin has remained undefeated in dual-meet competition, racking up a 29-0 record in Pac-10 meets. Coughlin spent her winter break setting records at the FINA World Cup in East Meadow, N.Y., where she collected two world records, four American records and six meet records.

Stitts, an Olympic gold medalist, leads the Bears in the breaststroke events and has the third-fastest time in the country in the 100 (1:00.51) and the fourth-fastest in the 200 (2:11.98).

Senior Alice Henriques comes into her final Pac-10 Championship ranked sixth in the country in the 100 back with a 1:57.22.

Cal's relays are also top notch. Its 200 medley relay squad of Coughlin, Stitts, Henriques, and sophomore Danielle Becks has the second-fastest time in the nation (1:40.04) and the same squad swam the third-fastest mark in the 400 (3:38.55). Stitts, Coughlin, Becks and junior Michelle Harper have the fourth fastest time in the 400 free relay (3:20.92) and Becks, Coughlin, freshman Emma Palsson and Harper have the fifth-best time in the 200 (1:32.06).

Following Pac-10s, the women take a two-week hiatus before sending athletes off to the NCAA Swimming Championships in Austin, Tex. Competition runs all day from March 21-23.

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