Late last summer, at the start of a new school year, UB swimming and diving coach Andy Bashor had a nagging sense of unease. After all, his team had literally been cut in half when the university eliminated the men's team the previous spring.
"I didn't know what the heck was going to happen," Bashor said early this week. "What would be the dynamics? It was a really difficult transition. I coached the men for 10 years, and just like that ... "
Bashor snapped his fingers to indicate how sudden it had been. Just like that, he was solely a women's coach. There had been anger and tears when UB made the decision to cut four sports last April, even a sit-in outside the president's office.
It was a painful thing for the affected athletes, like a death in the family. But it was especially hard for the women, who trained with the men and truly felt like one squad. There was almost a sense of survivors' guilt when they had to carry on without the men.
"There was," said Megan Burns, the star senior sprinter. "A lot of people don't realize how men's and women's swimming are one team. We're really close."
Burns, in fact, is dating Hudson Carroll, who was one of the stars of the men's team. Carroll is still at UB, helping Bashor while planning to transfer to Indiana next year. Most of the guys scattered to other programs.
So Bashor worried. He re-examined his reasons for coaching and realized that college sports are about more than wins and losses and records. They're about the bonds between young people, about cherishing the precious time an athlete has to be part of a team.
"It helped me to take a step back and re-evaluate why I do this," he said. "I think it's made me a better coach to them. Instead of results-driven, it's more caring. And I feel like we've gotten a bigger return because of that."
As it turned out, his worries were unfounded. The women's team, buoyed by an energetic freshmen group, got stronger. The men's team was no more, but they felt they were carrying their memory with them.
"We still have the opportunity to do something that some of them can't do anymore," said Andrea Ernst, a sophomore from Orchard Park. "So it pushes me a little bit more to know I have that opportunity."
The Bulls responded with the best season in program history. The women went unbeaten in duals for the first time, finishing 8-0. On Senior Day, they won all 16 events in a rout of Cleveland State at the Alumni Arena Natatorium.
Many of their meets were one-sided. Ernst said there are times when they're focused not on the opponent but on racing each other, same as they do in practice, and translating it over to the meet.
Of course, it helps to have Burns, a Rush-Henrietta graduate who is the two-time defending MAC champion in the 50- and 100-meter freestyles. Burns, whose sister Katie is a sophomore on the team, has competed in the NCAAs and Olympic Trials. She's been called the best swimmer in UB women's history.
Bashor said Burns wasn't a star in high school. He said she wasn't even sure she wanted to compete in college. But she improved rapidly at UB, skipping several of a swimmer's customary progressions. As a freshman, she dedicated herself to training and realized just how fast she could be.
"I wasn't expecting to be as fast as I am right now," Burns said. "I said, OK, I want to be more than the mediocre swimmer I was in high school. So I changed my work ethic and got the results that I wanted. It was easier to work hard when I came to practice, because I was getting what I wanted out of it."
She got very fast, very quickly. Burns won the 50 free in the MAC championships as a freshman, the 50 and 100 as a sophomore. Last year, she won the 50, 100 and 200 freestyles at the MACs. This year, she has the top time in the league in the 50 and 100 and the second-best clocking in the 200.
Burns was named the top MAC swimmer a year ago. But she says she would trade it for a MAC team title. The UB women will attempt to win their first team championship Wednesday to Saturday at Ohio University.
"Oh yeah, oh yeah," she said. "I just want to beat Akron. You don't have to print that, though."
"I know the coach too well," said Bashor, who is in his 12th season at UB. "Oh, yeah. He would post that all over the place. We're really good friends, really good friends."
Coach Brian Peresie has built a mid-major powerhouse at Akron, which has won four straight women's MAC titles since he took over as head coach. Peresie was a swimmer at Ohio U. when Bashor was a graduate assistant there 20 years ago.
The Bulls have a solid core of terrific swimmers. But Akron – which didn't face UB in duals – has remarkable depth. The Zips have the third-through-fifth-fastest 50 free times in the league behind Burns, four of the top eight in the 200 free, and so on.
"We'll see," Bashor said when asked if they can beat Akron.
They all seemed realistic about it. The Bulls would have to get remarkable performances from their depth swimmers. Akron would need to suffer some unforeseen setbacks. But you never know.
"Everybody has to be on their best game," Burns said, "or it's ... yeah." She didn't need to complete the thought.
"There's a lot of things that can happen," Bashor said. "I just don't talk about the end result anymore. We don't bring it up. It's a matter of we can control what we can control. Then you just let the chips fall. I want these guys to put our their best effort and put them in a position to be successful."
Success can be measured in progress. The UB women were fourth in the MAC championships two years ago. They were third last season. Second would be the natural progression on the road to an eventual Mid-American title – which Bashor accomplished with the men's team in a historic 2011 season.
"I think that this year is definitely going to be the best year out of the four years we've had," Burns said.
League title or not, Burns can feel she helped lay the foundation for a MAC power to rival Akron's. Maybe Ernst and the other young swimmers, who did so much to build team morale this season, will one day be able to experience a league championship.
Again, there are achievements you can't measure with a stopwatch. Bashor is most proud of the fact that his team had the best aggregate grade-point average of any in the Buffalo athletic department in the last two semesters – spring and fall of 2017.
"How many times do we talk about getting good grades?" Bashor asked his swimmers.
"The beginning of semester and that's it," Ernst replied.
"I just have a lot of trust," said Bashor, who lives in North Tonawanda with his wife and three children. "They have shown that it's important to them. So we don't have to follow them and make sure they're going to class. They know if they want to be successful they have to do the work."
The swimmers rise above the sometimes hollow notion of the student-athlete. Burns is already in nursing school. At the end of the week, she would work her first clinicals. Ernst is studying exercise science, hoping to be a physical therapist.
"I'm excited to be at school and not have to be a swimmer," said Burns, who had to be dragged to the pool to practice as a young girl.
"You have chapters in life," Bashor said, "and it's almost time to close that chapter. From my experience, it's more of the memories, of 'Yeah, I wouldn't want to go through the training, but if I could go through one more championship meet and be with the team' ... "
"Oh yeah, yeah," Burns said.
"That's the story I want these guys to walk away with," Bashor said. "Because we're not going to remember the times we swam, we're going to remember the friendships. They're going to remember those moments. To me, that's what college athletics is all about."
As they found out last spring, it can all be taken away, in a snap.