Some things never seem to change, and when February rolls around, it’s all about championship dreams for the College of Staten Island swimming & diving units, and 2015 is no different for head coach Michael Ackalitis and his staff, as they embark on what they hope will be a successful championship run at this year’s CUNYAC Championship Meet to be held at Lehman College beginning Friday and extending through Sunday.
As the defending champions on the men’s side, the Dolphins will squarely have the bull’s-eye on their backs at this weekend’s expo, but the Dolphins seemed primed for the challenge after a 6-4 overall regular season that featured a 4-1 run through the conference. The CSI women, according to the coach, will look to put a dent in the overall ledger, but it will be more about claiming gold in a series of individual and relay events that has the coach anxious for the road ahead.
“Many don’t realize how long of a season swimming and diving is, so when we get to this point, it really is very exciting,” said Ackalitis. “This part of the season is our chance to see all of the hard work and long days pay off. It’s a nice feeling, but there is understandable a lot of nervousness and anxiety too.”
Of course, most of the eyes this weekend will be on the CSI men, as they look to defend the CUNYAC title since they did it in back to back years in 2004 & 2005. Record-breaker Timothy Sweeney will anchor the charge, along with perennial favorites Danila Novikov and Andrey Tarasov chasing gold medals, and seniors John Pignatelli and Nolan Reese joining freshman Ayman El-Haddad looking to sweep events in diving. One thing is for sure: in an open race for the trophy the Dolphins will be among the favorites in individual and overall score totals.
“On the men’s side our athletes feel it is their championship to lose,” said the head coach. “There is a lot on the line, and we take the challenge of knowing we may be the favorite as a positive because it will drive us to out-do even what the expectations are. A lot of our athletes know they have chances for medals and just as good a chance to bring home the championship and we certainly don’t want to see that goal slip away.”
The Dolphins have always been among the top in many individual and relay events on the men’s side, but ask Ackalitis, and he will tell you it was the team’s depth that put them over the top a year ago. Many of the fourth-fifth and sixth-place finishes were the fuel that got CSI over the likes of Baruch College and Lehman College last year, and for the Dolphins to be successful once again, look for swimmers like Stephen O’Driscoll, Sergio Miranda, Derek Villa, and Roberto Hidalgo to organize the effort and catapult the Dolphins to the top.
“I don’t think we have the deepest team out there, but we have a very well-rounded team which really helps up keep pace and get points in every event,” he said. “Together with diving and our strong A and B relay teams, I think our depth is very good.”
On the women’s side, Ackalitis is extremely anxious about the team’s chances to not only garner medals, but to blast through some records in the process. It’s been a banner, record-breaking, year primarily for Dolphins’ pair Dakota Dawkins and Ewa Wojciechowska, who between them set a total of eight new CSI records in individual events and were a part of two other record-breaking relay teams in the 200-yard and 400-yard Medley Relay along with Tina Chen, Naomi Gaggi, and Victoria Crea. Ackalitis thinks the team can do more damage on the CUNYAC’s biggest stage.
“Everything that we do during the season is a build-up to the CUNYAC Championship, so I wouldn’t be surprised if many of the records we set this year were broken again this weekend, ” explained Ackalitis.
“I also think that in those events we have a chance to win the race outright, and that’s something very unique to our team in recent years,” he said. ‘To have a chance to see some of our athletes getting medals at the podium this year is very exciting.”
Along with the likes of Crea, Hunter Dawkins, Samantha Escobedo, and Kelly Walsh adding prime points in competition and with seniors April Bartlett and Stephanie Collyer expected to do the most damage on the diving boards, look for the Dolphins to turn plenty of heads at this year’s meet.
“We are definitely closing the gap between us and the perennial favorites like Hunter and Baruch this year, and together with the record-breaking performances we anticipate and with medals on the line and perhaps some end of year awards coming our way, it’s really building momentum for our program and we couldn’t be happier.”
Overall participants for the program may prevent it from taking the top team score on the women’s side at this year’s championship, but Ackalitis contends that CSI will provide a lot of power in its punch this season, enough to make the CUNYAC Championship the most anticipated event for the team this year.
“With us it’s always more about quality over quantity,” Ackalitis said. “I just want us to make an impact at the top of heats and for us to show the hard work paying off overall, I do think that we will do our best with this meet and show that we belong in the discussion for a championship each year.”
Overall, the Dolphins are thinking big and have the mettle to prove it. Ackalitis, the defending CUNYAC Coach of the Year on the men’s side knows that win or lose, the CUNYAC Championship Meet will mark the near-close of what has been a terrific season overall.
“To this point the season has definitely exceeded expectations from a team standpoint,’ he said. “Apart from the wins and losses, we have really developed our program this year with double-practices and weight-training, and the results have followed suit. When it’s all said and done it’s been an outstanding year.”
All legs of the CUNYAC Championship take place at Lehman College. Admission is free Friday, Saturday and Sunday, but tickets will be needed for entrance. Tickets can be obtained here.