Men's Swimming: On The Cusp

West Virginia is one day away, just 24 hours from challenging for a title it has never won and hasn't even competed for, really.

The 17th-ranked men's swimming team, led by second-year head coach Sergio Lopez, has surged into the national ranks seemingly from nowhere. When the Barcelona native arrived, WVU's program rated somewhere between middle of the pack and an extreme also-ran, finishing no better than third in Big East history. Swimming really wasn't on the school's radar, either. The most popular event in the natatorium, located on the Evansdale campus close to the Coliseum and adjacent to track and field's shell building, was the state high school swimming meet.

Local prospects went as much to the now-defunct programs at Ohio U. or a WVIAC school as the state's land-grant institution. One could argue West Virginia resembled the roaring 20s and Ellis Island: Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses. Now its roster literally resembles such. Lopez, a Barcelona native, has gone global. Brazil, Croatia, Venezuela, Australia, Hungary. The school's best talent, junior Pablo Marmolejo, is from Mexico City, Mexico. Victorious in the 200 IM (1:51.99), the 100 fly (49.28) and the 200 fly (1:48.41) in the final regular season duel meet against Cincinnati, Marmolejo set new pool records in all three events and again led the Mountaineers, now 13-0 overall and 5-0 in the Big East, to their highest ever ranking after their first unbeaten regular season since 1980.

WVU has defeated Penn State, Louisville and rivals Maryland and Pitt, decking the Terps by finishing first in their own invitational two weeks before a mano-a-mano straight up win in Morgantown made even finer by a sweep via the women's team, now 9-4 and 3-2. And with a men's win in the highly-competitive Shamrock Invitational over Notre Dame on Jan. 27, West Virginia has set itself up for the Big East Championships, Feb. 14-17 in East Meadow, N.Y.

"Our goal, when we got here, was in four years to be in the top 25 in country," Lopez said. "The way we recruited and did things was to go toward that. We had a four-year plan, like the Olympics would have. We did it a little quicker than we would have thought. We were able to create a team atmosphere with a group that has a lot of pride in being here at West Virginia."

Lopez has mixed regional and in-state talent – four swimmers come from West Virginia while five more are from boarder states – on a roster that stretches from California to Rhode Island and has athletes from four continents. The majority of the swimmers farther away are sophomores or freshmen, meaning Lopez took WVU's name and spread it farther than any coach in the history of the program.

A 1988 Olympic bronze medalist in the 200 meter breast, Lopez was appointed coach in April 2004 when he was hired away from Northwestern, where he served as the Wildcats associate head coach in 2003 and served as an NU assistant from 2000-03. He swam at Indiana and American Universities, where he was a nine time All-American in the breast, 500 free and intermediate medley. He took the job despite pointed jabs and legit questions from co-workers and other swimmers.

"I am from Spain and went to American (University, in Washington, D.C.), and even not being far from here, I heard a lot of things," Lopez said. "‘Why are you going to West Virginia? It will be hard to recruit there.' The state's reputation is hard with a lot of things. But the state and the school have a lot to offer as a recruiter. There is a lot to see and you have to be able to understand what you can sell. What I learned on my first job at Northwestern is that the swimmer is going to go where they believe the coach is going to take care of them. I did not have any doubts about that. One of the things people don't understand is that West Virginia is a hidden jewel. If I can convince a kid to come for a visit to the school, it is very hard for them to say no. I never doubted I could get them here."

That sounds ultra-similar to WVU's problems recruiting across the sports spectrum. Head football coach Rich Rodriguez has reiterated that, if the staff can simply convince a prospect to visit the campus, they feel they have as good a chance as anyone else to land them. Basketball head coach John Beilein has said the same and Lopez has played the two sports off his to get the national name recognition. The successes of football and basketball have elevated the other sports to where the flying WV and the name are nearly household. It reads strange, but international recruiting is sometimes easier because of one fateful song. John Denver's ‘Country Roads' as been remixed in dance and rock versions that are played at clubs and in stadiums across Europe, Australia and Asia. When a coach mentions West Virginia, it's known better than most other states and areas outside of D.C.

"One thing people sell is that fans love the Mountaineers," Lopez said. "If I have a swimmer, I can bring them to a football or basketball game, and whether they (sign) or not, they will have a good opinion of it and the state from that. They go home and tell other people what it was like, and that helps the reputation of the school. Parents of kids love sports and kids love them. They recognize it, and it's really exciting and it helps you. They want to have that school spirit. What we have here because of athletics is huge and something that helps people in the long term have big pride in West Virginia."

Lopez isn't on that cusp of a national title yet, but the Big East championships will serve as a national showcase for the program. If WVU can again top a Notre Dame or a Pitt, each ranked inside the top 35, then advance into the NCAAs, they could challenge for national status, something the Big East still lacks, as only two teams – as compared to six from the Big Ten and four each from the SEC and Pac-10 – are rated in the top 20.

"We understand we have a once in a lifetime chance to really surprise people this year," Lopez said. "Our job is to work on the mental side; make sure that they believe that they can do something special."

EDITOR'S NOTE: This story originally appeared in the print version of the Blue and Gold News, including information and quotes on new facilities, the recruiting approach and the program's relationship with athletics director Ed Pastilong, among other insights. Read more by subscribing via our front page link.

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