WALLA WALLA -- With nearly 50 athletes on her season-opening rosters, coach Jenn Blomme expects to see her Whitman College swimmers send plenty of ripples through Northwest Conference waters this winter.
"This could be the best team, men and women, that we've had in my time here," Blomme said as she launches her 10th season at Whitman. "This is certainly the greatest depth we've ever had.
"We're very balanced with about two dozen swimmers on the women's roster and the same number on the men's side," she adds. "We have a lot of young swimmers and a lot of talent up and down the rosters."
Some questions linger as the coaching staff decides how to split different swimmers between the shorter and longer distances. Other than that, Blomme said, "we have all four strokes covered. We have strong medley relay squads for both the men and women, and we have swimmers who are strong in the individual medley events. We've got a good group, a really good group."
A year ago, the Whitman men's team enjoyed its best season in two decades, piling up 561 points to place third at the NWC Championships. Two key contributors on that team, Ysbrand Nusse and Noel Sollom-Brotherton, graduated last spring, but Blomme sees enough new and returning talent to offset those losses.
"There is no reason why the men's team can't be just as strong, if not stronger, as a year ago," she said.
After losing standouts Nancy Alexander, Erin Pettersen, Ellen McCleery and Elizabeth Roberson to graduation two years ago, the Whitman women's team slipped a rung last winter, placing fourth at the NWC championships.
An influx of 12 first-year swimmers, however, has added significant pop to the women's squad this year, Blomme said.
"Our women's team is definitely stronger and more talented than a year ago, and maybe even two years ago," she added. "If you could somehow match this year's roster against our roster when Nancy, Erin, Ellen and Elizabeth were seniors, it would be a good battle."
The Missionary men's team has its own youth movement with seven freshmen in the fold.
"The young talent we have on both teams is exciting for us, and not just for this season," Blomme said. "The number of first- and second-year swimmers that we have in program means that we have a really nice foundation in place for the future."
The Whitman teams flexed a few early season muscles three weeks ago when they dunked College of Idaho by wide margins in non-conference dual meets.
The season starts in earnest this weekend when the Missionaries host a pair of NWC dual meets, starting with Linfield at 5 p.m. Friday in the Louise and Paul Harvey Pool at BakerFerguson Fitness Center. Pacific provides the competition at 1 p.m. Saturday.
The men's squad has just three seniors on its roster, but one of three, Eric Molnar, ranks as one of the top swimmers in the conference.
Molnar made a huge splash as a sophomore, when he won the 400-yard individual medley (IM) title at the conference championships while also placing third and seventh in the two butterfly events.
After missing the first half of last season while studying abroad, Molnar returned in January and made a big impact six weeks later at the NWC championships, placing second in the 200-yard undividual medley, third in the 200-yard butterfly and fourth in the 400-yard IM.
A second senior, Nick Hurlburt, is serving as one of the team captains and will focus on freestyle and breaststroke events, Blomme said.
Kevin McCoy, a third senior and freestyler, is "already swimming good times to start the season, and he'll continue to improve over the next several weeks," Blomme said. "He's come a long way in his years at Whitman."
The Missionary women's team also has just three seniors in Chelsea Klinger (freestyle, IM) Sidney Kohls (freestyle) and Jessie Neill (freestyle, butterfly).
Kohls is back for her second year as a team captain and "already swimming some of her best-ever times," Blomme said.
Klinger has been scoring points for Whitman at the conference finals from her first year forward. She has placed as high as fifth in the 400 IM and eighth in the 1,650-yard freestyle.
Klinger was slowed late in October when she was accidentally kicked in the head during practice. "She suffered a concussion and has been struggling a little bit, but Chelsea is a strong athlete and will come out of this just fine."
Lauren Flynn, a junior and two-year captain, is arguably the best returning swimmer for the Whitman women.
She placed third in the 100-yard freestyle at last year's NWC meet and was fourth in the freestyle races at 50 and 200 yards. She holds the school record in the two shortest freestyle events.
"Lauren looks wonderful in the water to start the season," Blomme said. "She also has some first-year teammates who can really push her this season. That competition within the team is going to benefit everyone."