But by the final event in the Georgia Tech Aquatic Center, home of the swimming and diving events for the 1996 summer Olympics, the Rams had battled to take a three-point lead over the University of Colorado.
URI senior captain Alex MacDonald clinched the men’s title for the Rams with his gold-medal, record-breaking performance of 53.18 seconds in the 100- meter individual medley. The South Burlington, Vt. resident’s win gave Rhode Island a 16-point margin over the Buffaloes at what was dubbed this year’s national club swimming championship. The event attracted 47 teams and 1,000 swimmers from around the country, which also saw MacDonald’s teammate Joe Sagginario of Bellport, N.Y., win gold with a meet-record time of 1.54.32 in the 200-meter butterfly.
Their wins symbolized the team’s determination to make up lost time and points during the meet weekend of April 1 through 3 and the lack of quit in several upperclassmen who kept men’s swimming alive when it was cut as a varsity sport three years ago.
The swim team’s national title only adds to URI’s reputation as a national club sports powerhouse, with men’s ice hockey winning a national title in 2006, women’s gymnastics winning a national crown in 2010 and women’s rugby taking a national title in 2007. Of course, sailing with its 11 national keelboat titles, is the giant of the program.
First-year swim coach Anthony Randall, a former member of the Rhode Island varsity squad who graduated in 2008 with a degree in journalism, was inspired by his 13-member squad’s toughness as it overtook many other teams with 20 or more swimmers.
“They all worked hard in the classroom, in the pool and during dry-land workouts,” Randall said.
Thanks to the efforts of Mick Westkott, the women’s varsity coach, the men were allowed to travel to Division I women’s meets so they could compete against the men’s varsity teams.
“We would swim in these Division I meets and some Division III meets and we were soundly beaten, but we always swam hard,” Randall said.
During a training trip with the women’s team to Sarasota, Fla. and a 13-team club meet, Randall sensed that the team’s confidence was starting to grow.
“During training in Florida, we swam twice a day, and in between swim sessions, we would either lift weights or run,” Randall said. “As the week went on, I could see that we were ready to compete.”
All through the season, which began in October 2010, Randall looked to his seniors to help guide the newer members of the team. And so, when the championship weekend arrived, he looked over the lineup with the seniors.
“They made some suggestions and I listened because I needed the support of the entire team,” Randall said. “They had some good ideas about who would be the strongest performers in each event and their assistance played a key role in our title.”
MacDonald, a marketing and psychology major, Sagginario, a chemical engineering major, and fellow senior captain Rob Deering of Mount Prospect, Il., were among the iron men of the team. MacDonald swam in six individual events and five relays; Deering, a fourth-year pharmacy student, swam in six individual races and four relays and Sagginario swam in six individual races and two relays.
The three captains, senior Dan Perreault of Wallingford, Conn. and junior Evan Denard of Doylestown, Pa. were the only remaining swimmers who had been recruited to swim for the URI varsity team.
“This was a great way for the four seniors on the team to finish their college careers given all they have been through,” said Weskott, their former varsity coach. “It is a real testament to their character, and this finish brings great credit and recognition to the University. Everyone at the University of Rhode Island has helped this program thrive and succeed given the difficulty of the situation three years ago, and especially the four seniors.”
Skipper Randall said when he swam for the varsity, a family atmosphere prevailed, and he wanted to see that survive. “I know the seniors and juniors have kept that alive. They know the traditions,” Randall said.
But the coach and the swimmers had to learn to do things differently. During the season, the team practiced from 2 to 4 p.m., Monday through Friday, and everyone knew classes and other academic commitments would conflict with practice times.
“I learned how to train with coach Westkott,” Randall said. “So I wanted to follow that model, but I also wanted to give the swimmers flexibility to achieve in the classroom. There were times when it was tough to get bodies in the water, but when they were training, I had their undivided attention.”
“In our first year as a club, we acted like we were still varsity because Mick Westcott was still coaching us and we swam in the Division I Eastern Collegiate Athletic Conference Championships where we finished ninth out of 24 teams,” Deering said. “We swam angry that year.”
But in the second year, Deering and his mates had to let go of their anger to start running the club. “It was a difficult transition, but this year we were prepared and ready to go to nationals,” Deering said.
They also had several hungry newcomers, including sophomore pharmacy major Kevin Sun, who was named to the Rhode Island All State team in his senior year at South Kingstown High School, and Eric O’Rourke, a sophomore from Westerly.
“Eric was great, and he had a breakout meet, finishing 16th out of 90 swimmers in the 1,000-meter race,” MacDonald said. “We were all cheering like crazy for him.”
The coach and the seniors agree that with a solid group of juniors, sophomore and freshmen, the team will be strong in the future.
“Winning the nationals was surreal and it took a while for it all to sink in,” Saggarinio said.
Denard, the junior who is majoring in secondary education and mathematics, said he believed the team won because of its work ethic. “We had a great effort all year long, and we all love the sport. This was one of the best college experiences of my career.”
For complete meet results go to http://www.swimmingworldmagazine.com/results/hy-tek/2011%20East%20Coast%20Swim%20Club%20Championships%20-%20%2804-01-2011%20-%2004-03-2011%29/index.aspx
The following is the full team roster with swimmers’ hometowns. Neubauer did not compete because of an injury.
Thomas Beagan West Warwick
Robert Deering Mt. Prospect, Ill.
Evan Denard Doylestown, Pa.
Toby Fontaine Wakefield
Tommy Frick Lake Worth, Fla.
Paul Ianiro West Orange, N.J.
Brendon Neubauer Barrington
Kevin Ng Summit, N.J.
Alex MacDonald South Burlington, Vt.
Eric O’Rourke Westerly
Dan Perreault Wallingford, Conn.
Joe Sagginario Bellport, N.Y.
Kevin Sun Wakefield
NATIONAL CHAMPS: Members of the URI men’s swim team pose after winning the national title at the East Coast Club Championship in early April. Standing from left are: Paul Ianiro of West Orange, N.J., Tommy Beagan of West Warwick, Alex MacDonald of South Burlington, Vt., coach Anthony Randall, originally of Harrisburg, Pa., Kevin Ng of Summit, N.J., Kevin Sun of Wakefield, Tommy Frick of Lake Worth, Fla., Dan Perreault of Wallingford, Conn., Joe Sagginario of Bellport, N.Y., Brendan Neubauer of Barrington, Robert Deering of Mount Prospect, Ill., and Toby Fontaine of Wakefield. Seated from left, Eric O’Rouke of Westerly, Even Denard of Doylestown, Pa. Photo courtesy Joe Sagginario.
Photo by Joseph Michael Sagginario