BIRMINGHAM, Ala. -- Coming off a 2017-18 season that saw the men's and women's teams sweep the Southern Athletic Association championships in convincing fashion, multiple conference records broken, a few SAA athletes of the year, nine student-athletes qualify for the NCAA championships and five all-Americans, the Birmingham-Southern College swimming and diving teams are looking to improve on those impressive feats in their 2018-19 campaign.
To achieve their goals, the Panthers will rely on a number of returners who proved what they were capable of in the pool last season, as well as some newcomers to the Hilltop who are looking to make their own mark.
Returning for the women's team, junior Becca Erwin (Duluth, Ga./Duluth HS) is expected to be a leader in the pool much like she was last season. Erwin broke many team and conference records as a sophomore, some of which were her own. She qualified for the NCAA championships, finishing fourth and six in the 200- and 100-freestyles, respectively, and finished the season as the SAA Women's Swimmer of the Year and an All-American.
"Becca has to set her sights as a national champion," said Wilcox. "She's very talented and a phenomenal swimmer, and I believe she has a legitimate shot at winning an individual (national) championship."
Sophomore Mary Beth Ronne (Athens, Tenn./McMinn County HS) is another returning swimmer to look out for, as well.
"I think she is really up-and-coming," said Wilcox. "She went to NCAAs for the relays last year, and she got a taste of it. I think she's starting to figure out she belongs there, and she could do some great things this year."
Returning for the men is Nico Medina (Hollywood, Fla./American Heritage HS), Patrick Dunne (Mobile, Ala./McGill-Toolen Catholic HS), and Noah Young (Clinton, Miss./Clinton HS), all of whom competed in the NCAA championships last season, either as an individual or in a relay event.
"Nico Medina, I know, has a shot at placing high or even winning an individual event at nationals," said Wilcox. "Patrick Dunne and Noah Young we also expect to swim well for us like they did last year. Those three, we'll definitely be counting on on the men's side."
Newcomers to look for, Wilcox said, are Mary Katherine Stewart (Daphne, Ala./Daphne HS) and Anna Jordan Luth (Pensacola, Fla./Booker T. Washington HS) on the women's side. Stewart will likely swim in backstroke, middle-distance freestyle and IM events while Luth participates in the breast stroke and IM events.
"I think both of them have a legitimate shot of going to NCAAs," Wilcox added.
On the men's side, newcomers freshman Connor McClain (Elkmont, Ala./Homeschooled), a freshman, and transfer Chase Mays (Olathe, Kan./Xavier University) will be looking for a chance to make an impact in swimming events.
"Connor McClain, he's untapped and he's going to make it this year," said Wilcox. "I really can see him doing something special."
"Chase, he's in from Xavier, and he's shown us a lot," he added. "He's going to be looking for spots on relays, and I think he has a great opportunity."
One newcomer diver, freshman James Hughes (Huntsville, Ala./Grissom HS), is also expected to perform at a high level.
"He's a great addition to our team," Wilcox said. "I think he a legitimate chance of qualifying for nationals, especially in zones."
Expectations for student-athletes and the teams as a whole are one thing, but those expectations must be validated in the pool. And this year, like in years past, the Panthers will face tough competition all season long.
Birmingham-Southern starts the season off with a home meet against national powerhouse Emory on Saturday, October 13 at the Birmingham Crossplex.
"(Emory) will be tough to beat," said Wilcox. "Their women are defending national champions and their men were runner-up, and they'll be in the running for team (national) title again this year. They'll be tough to beat, but that's a good challenge for us."
The following Saturday, October 20, the Panthers will host SCAD and Loyola of New Orleans at the Crossplex.
"That's back-to-back weekends of tough competition," said Wilcox. "It kind of sets the tone for the year. And what we're really trying to do is bump the schedule up so that we face a lot of stiff competition at the beginning of the year so that we're ready for conference."
BSC will travel to Rhodes for its first conference competition of the season, a meet against the Lynx on the first Saturday of November. After that, the Panthers will head north to Crawfordsville, Indiana, for the Wabash College Invitational.
"I'm looking forward to the Wabash Invite," said Wilcox. "This will be the first time we've gone to it after we spent the last two years competing in the House of Champions, which was half or more Division I teams. This will be seven or eight teams that are Division II or Division III, and I think as a team this will be a great meet for us."
"I think we've got a good shot at (Wabash), but we'll just have to see. There are teams at this competition that we just don't face because they're up north, and so it will be good competition. I think it'll be pretty even and it'll probably come down to the wire," he said.
Following the Wabash Invitational, Birmingham-Southern will travel to the Berry College Invite before hosting the Vikings in a one-on-one meet at the Crossplex on Saturday, January 19.
The Panthers will get one last tune-up the next weekend, Saturday, January 26, when Sewanee and Trinity come to Birmingham before the start of the four-day SAA Championships on February 13.
At the conference meet, both BSC squads will look to defend their SAA titles.
"Our goal at conference is to win both men and women again this year, and we think we have a great shot at that," said Wilcox.
A lot of teams in the SAA have added great swimmers and improved, Wilcox said, but the Panthers still have an expectation of topping them if they perform at their best.
Overall, the expectations for Wilcox's teams and individual student-athletes have only gone up, especially at the level of national competition.
"At the conference level, our expectations and goals haven't changed – win the conference," said Wilcox. "As far as NCAAs go, our goal is to send more of our athletes there. Last year we sent nine and we want to send even more than that this year."
"At the end of the day, our goal is the win, and I believe we have a good schedule and a really good team that can meet that ultimate goal," he added.