Last April, Toni Naccarella found herself in the biggest moment of her career.
Naccarella, a senior on UB’s swimming and diving team, was one of four UB athletes competing in the 400 freestyle relay, the final event of the Mid-American Conference Championships. The Bulls needed to win gold to capture their first-ever MAC title.
Naccarella and her teammates delivered.
“When I finished the race I just remember everyone screaming, then I got out of the pool and the whole team came down crying. We were just so happy,” Naccarella told The Spectrum in an interview last week. “It’s a feeling I’ve never felt before.”
UB’s swimming and diving team hopes to capture that feeling for a second time in late February when they compete in the MAC Championships in Bowling Green, OH. The Bulls went 5-0 in head-to-head matchups this season, which extended their program-record winning streak to 14 matches. The Bulls will be among the favorites when they seek to defend their MAC title next week.
“You’re excited but you can’t get too excited, or you’re just going to tire yourself out,” head coach Andy Bashor said. “We have to slowly build that type of energy so we’re peaking at the MACs and not trying to keep this energy up so high that by the time we get to the MACs we’re exhausted.”
The Bulls are on an unrivaled run, one that has seen them string together so many consecutive wins that their last loss came more than three years ago, before COVID-19 rocked the U.S.
UB had five wins this season: over Toledo, 198-102; Ohio, 190-110; Duquesne, 169-129; Miami (OH), 178-122; and Ball State, 158-141. Junior diver Tori Franz had an especially prolific regular season, notching multiple 1-meter and 3-meter crowns.
The Bulls also shined at the 200 medley relay and the 100 backstroke. Freshman Marialis Kwak, sophomores Mia Naccarella (Toni’s sister) and Marij van der Mast, senior Katie Pollock and graduate student Jillian Lawton all stood out this season.
The Bulls’ winning streak has helped build a strong sense of trust and community among members of the team. The club’s robust bond has proven to be a weapon as they continue to blaze their path toward stardom.
“There’s a lot of laughing and entertainment in between. It’s just kind of like we’re all hanging out,” Franz said. “We’re doing our sport, we’re working hard, but at the same time we are making memories.”
This comfortable environment translates in the water, where the women say they are able to lean on their teammates for comfort and support. Head diving coach Russ Dekker says he urges his athletes to focus on one correction at a time, and to keep looking forward.
“I keep my composure by having fun with my teammates and not taking it too serious,” Naccarella said. “I really like competing and you have good races and bad races, but at the end of the day you’re making memories with your team.”
Franz says she is able to succeed when she grounds herself and sees things in a new light.
“It’s putting it in perspective. If I’m getting really nervous before an event I’m like, Well, wait a second, this is not a life or death situation,” Franz said. “It’s staying in the moment and being grateful. I love competing and I love diving, it’s just going and having fun with it. Every day is a blessing I get to do that.”
Like every other championship sports team, the Bulls pride themselves on working hard — in and out of the pool. UB had a cumulative 3.501 GPA in the fall, which rivals its impressive efforts in the water. Bashor says he hopes his team is rewarded for their hard work.
“It was really fun to watch the girls celebrate and feel the accomplishment of working so hard towards a common goal and then being in a position to achieve it,” Bashor said about last year’s finish. “These ladies do a lot of what we call delayed gratification. They work really hard for a long period of time to peak at one moment.”
Kayla Sterner is the assistant sports editor and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
Kayla Sterner is an assistant sports editor at The Spectrum. She is studying communications with the hopes of being a sideline reporter. In her spare time, she can be found in the gym, watching football or vibing to Mac Miller. Kayla is on Twitter @kaylasterner.