PARKLAND – Even with two weeks of hindsight, the Pacific Lutheran swim team's historic season and dominant performance at the Northwest Conference championship meet continues to inspire awe at the achievement and excitement for the future.
"Of all the cheering and yelling that was going on behind the coaches all weekend, one of the most common comments we heard was 'Holy Cow!" because of how well the team was doing and how so many of us were blowing away our expectations, over and over again," PLU head coach Matt Sellman recalled from the championship meet.
To be fair, even the greatest optimist couldn't have expected PLU to perform as well as the Lutes did all season, particularly at the conference meet. The Lutes wrapped the year with 21 new school records, tying for the most ever set in one season. They claimed eight event championships at the conference meet, including a sweep of all five women's relays. One season after the Lutes won their first women's NWC championship since 1996 with a two-point win that came down to the meet's final event, PLU left no questions this year.
"Even though we won the conference championship last year, we entered this season feeling like we left some things undone last year and wanting to prove we weren't a fluke, that we were a force to be reckoned with and will continue to be," Sellman said. "We wanted to 'Leave No Doubt,' and we did just that all season, and especially at the championships."
The PLU women scored 779 points at the championship meet – the most by an NWC team since 2011 – to finish 255 points ahead of second-place Whitman. That capped a season that saw the Lute women defeat Whitworth during the dual season for the first time in 19 years as PLU posted an undefeated women's dual record. The Whitworth meet was the closest, but PLU outscored the Pirates 31-5 in the final two events to turn a close race into an emphatic 118-87 home win back in January. Meanwhile the men's team only lost two duals all season and finished third at the conference meet.
"The entire season really built to the championship weekend," Sellman said. "As a team, we were on-point all year: we were focused and outswam our expectations in almost every meet. The women went undefeated and made what could have been close meets into big wins, and the men built all year to peak at the right time."
And peak at the right time, the Lutes did. PLU had 34 of 35 eligible swimmers score at the NWC meet, with 89 percent of preliminary round swims qualifying Lutes for finals competition. The three-day conference meet saw 88 program top-10 times, while PLU totaled 101 top-10 times during the season, and 86 percent of PLU swims during the championship meet counted as personal-bests for the athletes. While the teams are scored separately, the combined men's and women's NWC point total of 1,300.5 was the highest of the meet, earning PLU the unofficial honor of top program in the conference.
"The energy that we had on deck and as we cheered was incredible and really fueled much of what we were doing in the water," Sellman said. "The culture and attitude we have cultivated within the team is so powerful. We expect to be successful; we understand what it takes to earn that success; and we love seeing each other achieve that success. When you have 45 people working together towards common team and individual goals, with confidence and a little swagger, good things happen."
Lute swimmers claimed a conference-high 90 All-NWC honors, with 37 first-team and 53 second-team honors between the men's and women's squads. Shanell Sullenberger, Michelle Hogan and Melissa Dean each compiled seven all-conference performances to lead the women's team, while Joseph Bowley and Brian Ruggles each tallied six all-NWC swims to lead the men. Out of 10 relays, nine earned all-conference honors – including the five first-team honors for the women – an accomplishment that Sellman believes speaks highly to the priorities of his team.
"The fact that we did so well in our relays says a lot about the mindset of this team: that 'TEAM' matters, and when we are swimming for our team, then not much can hold us back," Sellman said.
Completing his fifth year leading the swimming program at his alma mater, Sellman became the first coach in conference history to be named NWC Women's Swimming Coach of the Year in three consecutive seasons. The Lute women have climbed from a sixth-place conference finish in Sellman's first season to the team's first back-to-back conference titles since the 1992 team closed out an astounding run of 11 straight titles. The PLU men have not placed lower than fourth in the conference in Sellman's five seasons, with a trio of top-three finishes.
And the Lutes are just as successful in the classroom. Both PLU squads received College Swimming Coaches Association of America (CSCAA) Team Scholar All-America recognition for fall 2014, marking the fourth straight year receiving the honor for the Lute women and the second straight year for the men.
"We've been on such a wave of momentum these past few years," Sellman said. "We have worked so hard to develop a culture and mindset within the program that creates holistic and long-term success, and we are now excelling in every area: as athletes, as students and, most importantly, as excellent teammates and leaders. I am so proud and impressed with what we are as a team and a program."
While PLU's 2014-15 season was historic in every sense of the word, it was also simply the next step in a three-year run of improvement that has seen the Lutes raise the bar every season while setting nearly 60 school records during that stretch. And there's no reason to expect that progression to stop anytime soon.
"I really think we are just breaking the surface and will continue to get better and be a strong and proud team for a long time," Sellman said.
To read more about PLU's 90 all-conference honors, click here.
To read more about PLU's NWC Championships performance, click here for day one, click here for day two and click here for day three recaps.
To see a complete list of PLU's swimming program records, click here.