WALLA WALLA, Wash. -- Seniors Sonja Lapinski and Zach Seeley, along with a handful of talented sophomores, will lead the way this weekend as the Whitman College swim team starts its winter season.
The Missionaries compete Friday evening in the Logger Relays, hosted by the University of Puget Sound in Tacoma. Saturday morning in Tacoma, Pacific Lutheran hosts the Northwest Conference Sprint Pentathalon.
"We're looking forward to our first meets," Whitman coach Jenn Blomme says. "The energy level right now is very high and very positive. We started our fall workouts three weeks earlier this year, so we've spent a lot of quality time refining our strokes and building a base for the season. We're ready to go."
The Missionary roster is a relatively young one, but Lapinski and Seeley are the seniors who have enjoyed the most success over the past two or three years. Seeley, in fact, is the only senior on the men's roster, which has just six athletes in all. Lapinski tops a women's roster of 18 swimmers.
Starting her third season as Whitman's swim coach, Blomme is thrilled that her women's squad is "starting to show more depth and talent. It's wonderful to have an influx of new people. The energy and enthusiasm they bring is a benefit to everyone."
"The men's team is obviously still struggling with depth," Blomme adds. "We lost two talented swimmers, a junior and a freshman, earlier this fall, which hurt a lot. What we have left are Zach (Seeley) and a strong sophomore class. The sophomores in particular see themselves as sowing the seeds for a larger men's team in the future."
Seeley, a men's co-captain for a second straight season, placed 10th in the 200-yard breaststroke at last year's Northwest Conference championships.
Seeley also competes in the butterfly and individual medley events. In NWC championship meets earlier in his Whitman career, Seeley placed as high as 11th in the 200-yard individual medley and 12th in the 100-yard breaststroke.
"Zach has turned up the intensity of his training the past few years," Blomme says. "He's starting to come into his own, and I expect his senior season to be a good one."
The other men's co-captain this winter is sophomore Keith Jarrett, who competes primarily as a freestyle sprinter. In two sprints and one butterfly event at last year's NWC finals, he placed either 12th or 13th.
"Keith has come a long way from a year ago in terms of his growth and maturity as a college swimmer," Blomme says. "He's invested a lot of time and effort in his training, and he's very excited about racing. Keith has his sights set on qualifying for nationals, and that's where his goals should be."
Garth Brand, another of Whitman's sophomores, looks forward to his first full season of competition. After missing the fall semester last year because of a broken arm, Brand turned some heads last January and February.
"It was just two months long, but Garth had a great first season," Blomme says. "He did a great job at the conference meet," placing 11th in the 500-yard freestyle, 12th in the 1,650-yard freestyle, and 13th in the 100-yard backstroke.
The Whitman freshman who capped last season with the biggest splash, however, was Ben Miller, who placed 10th in the NWC Championships in both the 1,650-yard freestyle and 200-yard backstroke.
"It was great to see the improvements Ben made in his first season," Blomme says. "He will continue to get stronger and faster."
The only other members of the Missionary men's team are sophomores Kyle Roskelley and Brett Lyon, both of whom are competing at the collegiate level for the first time.
Roskelley, the more experienced of the two, swims the butterfly and individual medley events. Back injuries from a car accident about 18 months ago kept him swimming last season as a freshman. A less serious ankle and foot injury also slowed his training this fall.
"Kyle has the potential to be a very good college swimmer," Blomme says. "We'll start slowly and see how it goes. Hopefully, with continued rehabilitation and smart training, Kyle will get stronger as the season goes on."
Lyon will focus his efforts on the mid-distance freestyle events, Blomme says. "Brett might not have a lot of experience, but he's doing a surprisingly good job."
Lapinski is one of several seniors on the women's roster who have missed one or more previous seasons because of foreign study, injury or other interests.
After studying abroad last fall, Lapinski returned to campus in January and placed 10th in the 100-yard backstroke in February's conference championships. She also placed 15th in the 100-yard freestyle.
Two years ago, with a full season under her belt, Lapinski placed seventh in the 100-yard backstroke at the NWC meet. "Sonja is very motivated and training very hard," Blomme says. "Even though she isn't one of our team captains, she has a lot of leadership ability. She makes the whole team stronger."
Another of Whitman's seniors, Danielle McClenahan, is competing again this year after serving as team manager as a junior, when her academic major consumed most of her time.
"Danielle's time away from competition seems to have energized her," Blomme says. "She's swimming very well right now."
In her first two years at Whitman, McClenahan placed as high as 10th in the 100-yard breaststroke in the conference championships, and as high as 12th in the 400-yard individual medley.
Whitman's most talented swimmers returning from last year are both sophomores, Alexis Jinbo-Doran and Lindsay Brady.
Jinbo-Doran capped her first year by placing eighth in the 200-yard breaststroke at the NWC Championships. She also placed 11th in the 100-yard breaststroke (eighth in the preliminaries) and 13th in the 200-yard individual medley.
"Alexis has made a big adjustment this year, I think, to being a college swimmer, and she's much stronger this season, both physically and mentally," Blomme says. "Her training has been much more focused than a year ago."
In the history of Whitman swimming, Jinbo-Doran already has the second-best time in the 100-yard breaststroke and the third- best time at the 200-yard distance. "Her goals this season are to set new school records for both breaststroke events," Blomme says. "I think those records are well within her reach."
Brady also finished off her first collegiate season with a strong showing at the conference championships. She placed eighth in the 1,650-yard freestyle, 11th in the 500-yard freestyle, and 16th in the 200-yard freestyle.
"Lindsay has been training very hard this fall, both in and out of the water," Blomme says. "She also has a much better group of teammates to continue her training with as the season goes along. We're going to see faster times from Lindsay."
Of the handful of first-year women on this year's roster, Kathy Bui is the most talented. Bui swims freestyle sprints as well as the backstroke events.
"Kathy is going to be a fantastic swimmer for Whitman," Blomme says. "She's by far the fastest sprinter we've had on the women's side in my time here. She should move very quickly into Whitman's all-time top ten lists for the 50-yard and 100-yard freestyles."
Blomme also expects fast sprint times this season from senior Lisa Dodobara, who was injured as a sophomore and on foreign study as a junior. "Once we get Lisa back up to speed, she will definitely be a contributor for us."
Emily Owens is another senior competing for the first time since her first year at Whitman, when she placed 15th in the 1,650-yard freestyle at the NWC meet. "Emily is a very versatile freestyle swimmer," Blomme says. "She go from 200 yards on up."
Two more seniors on the roster are Ali Austin, one of the women's co-captains, and Heidi Buettner, who is back on the squad after missing last season. Buettner capped her freshman season at Whitman by placing 16th in the 1,650-yard freestyle in the conference championships.
Austin, who swim the freestyle distance and butterfly events, shares this year's captain duties with sophomore Kristyn Vytlacil, who placed 17th and 18th in the breaststroke events at last year's NWC meet.
The Missionary women's roster also includes three juniors with varying degrees of collegiate experience. Katie Billings is back for her second season, although she leaves in January for a semester of foreign study. Sarah Chernoff and Jessica Gauvreau are in their first seasons at Whitman, although Gauvreau is sidelined for now by shoulder problems.
Other newcomers this season sophomore Mira Cutler and first-year students Allison Boomer, Lila Little, Natalie Loebner and Kelsey Ochs. Loebner is recovering from shoulder surgery, while Boomer has shown promise in the butterfly and individual medley events. "Allison is going to be a good swimmer for us," Blomme says.
After this weekend's competitions in Tacoma, the Whitman swim teams return home to host a series of three Northwest Conference dual meets. The first two take place Friday and Saturday, Nov. 8-9, against Lewis & Clark and Linfield colleges, respectively.