On Saturday, the Hillsdale College Charger swim team won their first conference championship since joining the Great Midwest Athletic Conference, and Chargers Head Coach Kurt Kirner was named “GMAC Coach of the Year” for the second year in a row.
In the past two years since joining the GMAC, the Chargers took second place behind Findlay University in the championship meet. This year, however, the Chargers took first ahead of the teams in their conference as well as the Great Mountain East Conference teams, which also swam in the combined championship.
After each of the 4 competition days, Hillsdale led all 13 participating teams in point totals. The team concluded the meet on Saturday with a leading total of 1,691 points.
“It was kind of surreal being there on the last day and realizing we were going to win,” Senior Daniel Snell said. “But we started out strong and maintained that lead through each day.”
Freshman Leah Tunney was named the GMAC “Freshman of the Year,” which is the second time in three years that a Charger has earned that title. Tunney scored 28 points and earned NCAA Division II B‑cuts in both the 1000 freestyle and the 500 freestyle, which means she’s nearing the qualifying times for the national meet.
On Wednesday, the first day of competition, Tunney broke the school record in the 1000 freestyle with a time of 10:17.98 as she finished first in the conference and second overall — only 0.1 second behind the first-place winner. In the 50 freestyle, freshman Marie Taylor also finished first in the conference and second overall with a lifetime best of 24.04 seconds.
Thursday, Snell made a lifetime best time of 4:37.57 as she won the 400 IM. Senior Allie Matti followed Snell in second with a time of 4:41.75, which was also a lifetime best and a 7‑second drop from her time in the preliminary race that morning.
“Having that big time drop showed everyone that we trained for this and we could win it,” Matti said. “In the end, I just thought, ‘this is the last time I’m gonna do this so I really need to push.’ And I ended up out-touching another swimmer by 0.3 seconds.”
In the 200 butterfly on Friday, senior Catherine Voisin led five Chargers in the top eight spots. Voisin finished in second with a time of 2:08.64, just 0.8 seconds after the first place winner. Tunney also took first in the 500 freestyle, earning her second NCAA Division II B‑cut and establishing a new meet record with a lifetime best of 5:02.34.
On Saturday, the 400 freestyle relay team of Voisin, Tunney, senior Victoria Addis, and freshman Marie Taylor set a school record with a time of 3:56.26, and Junior Katherine Heeres successfully defended her title in the 200 backstroke.
Heeres said the team got “a little nervous” on the last day but was able to maintain and even grow their lead.
“I can’t wrap my mind around it,” Heeres said, “We talked about it for the entire year, and for it to finally happen is really exciting. Everyone was so resilient.”
Head Coach Kurt Kirner, who was voted “Coach of the Year,” said the Chargers focused on the psychological side of competing more consistently this year, and it was very rewarding to see that result in a championship title.
“It’s something they put so much time and effort into,” Kirner said. “Because we worked on mentality so regularly this year, you really saw the fruits of it. Hopefully it’s the start of something that will happen more for the underclassman in the years to come.”
On the title, Kirner said, “I try to coach the same each year. It’s the athletes that make a difference. My award is the representation of how good the team is this year.”
Kirner also recognized his assistant coach, Zoe Tracey, who he said “deserves the award just as much” for all her close work with the swimmers.
Matti said that a lot of swimmers and coaches around the conference like their team because of Kirner.
“We’ve created such good relationships across the conference that people really appreciate our sportsmanship, and that’s all due to him,” Matti said. “He says he wins coach of the year because of the type of people we are, but it stems from the type of person he is.”
Heeres added that about half the team teared up when Kirner was announced as the Coach of the Year.
“It really speaks to the kind of man and coach he is,” Heeres said. “He’s so dedicated to all of us and is so humble. I think I speak for everyone when I say that he is one of our favorite people on campus and he cares so much for us — not just in our swimming, but in our academics and personal lives. He really deserves that recognition.”