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March 12, 2014

Champions of a new ‘Horizon’

By Mark Vest
C & G Sports Writer

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Members of Oakland University’s swimming & diving team are pictured after the men’s and women’s teams won Horizon League championships. After winning 14 consecutive conference titles in the Summit League, the Golden Grizzlies came away with a championship in their inaugural season in the Horizon League.

The Oakland University swimming & diving program added to its rich history after the men’s and women’s squads took first place at the Horizon League Championship March 1 in Cleveland, Ohio.

The Golden Grizzlies captured the championship in what was their inaugural season competing in the Horizon League. Oakland won a conference title on both the men’s and women’s side each year it competed in the Summit League, and has now won a combined 59 conference championships.

Oakland coach Pete Hovland offered some ideas as to what their latest conference championship says about the Golden Grizzlies’ program.

“I think it says something about our tradition and the culture we’ve established,” he said. “I don’t think it’s any one thing. In order for something like this to happen, a number of different things have to come together. Fortunately, we’ve been able to do that over the years. It’s hard to fathom that the team’s been this successful over all these years. But it goes back to quality student-athletes, administrative support we’ve had over the years. I’ve been fortunate. I’ve had some great assistant coaches working with me over these past 35 years that I’ve been here.”

After experiencing as much success as Oakland did while in the Summit League, the move to the Horizon League represented a new challenge. The motivation to continue its streak of conference championships seems to have been strong with Oakland.

“Extremely,” Hovland said of the motivation. “When we heard back in July that we’d be moving into the Horizon League, the staff, student-athletes — not just in our sport — all the sports on campus were extremely excited. Definitely a challenge for us — a challenge I think we needed. They accepted the challenge and really stepped up. All the hard work, sacrifice and dedication to keeping the tradition alive was something the swimmers and divers took very, very serious, and not only wanted to represent themselves and their current teammates, but the swimmers and divers that have gone before them. They wanted to continue to grow that legacy.”

The opportunity Oakland seized to continue with a long-standing tradition of winning conference championships didn’t exactly escape the attention of senior Grant Harding.

“It was exciting,” he said. “We raced some of the teams in our dual meets, so we knew who we were going up against. We were confident the whole way through — we knew we could win. We were happy to continue the streak of winning.”

“It was an incredibly exciting meet for us,” said senior Julia Vela. “A lot more competition, especially on the women’s side. It was a close meet the entire time. When we finally got the victory at the end, everyone was that much more excited than in the past.”

While Hovland may be sad to see some of his seniors leave the program, as he said they “have left a long-standing legacy,” the opportunity some of the younger members of the squad had to watch them go to work, as well as the chance to be part of a championship squad, could benefit Oakland’s program as it moves forward.

“I think the new student-athletes that experienced this for the first time are pretty excited about it,” he said. “I think they now know what it means and what it’s all about. To see the smiles on their faces, to see how well they performed — I think they understand that this is pretty cool stuff. Fortunately for our underclassmen, they’ve had a lot of wonderful people ahead of them. Those experiences, I think, are invaluable. I know they look to the upperclassmen for guidance and leadership. They watch and learn.”

At press time, it had yet to be determined if team members have qualified for NCAA championships, as numerous factors are involved in determining the final NCAA field.

No matter what happens with NCAA qualifying, Hovland has already taken some time to consider the state of Oakland’s program.

“I think it’s in a great place,” he said. “I think the victory this weekend helps us even more heading forward. Winning is good, and it is something that perpetuates itself.”

You can reach C & G Sports Writer Mark Vest at mvest@candgnews.com or at (586)279-1112. Twitter Follow Mark on Twitter.