The University at Buffalo swim teams have established themselves as big fish in the medium-sized pool of Division II athletics.
Their outlook this year is to enjoy it while it lasts.
Next year, the UB swimmers and divers go back to being just another everyday fish when they move to the giant-sized pool of Division I.
"It has taken us 3 1/2 years to get up into the national rankings, and most people consider us solidly notched in the top 10," said UB men's coach Budd Termin. "We'll have to be patient when we go to Division I."
UB's men's team placed seventh at last year's NCAA Division II Championships, and is ranked seventh through the early part of this season. The UB women, 13th at last year's NCAA meet, are ranked eighth in the nation.
Both the men and the women have reason to hope for higher finishes at this year's NCAA meet, which should be their last at Division II. UB plans to ask for admission to Division I in the spring.
Both the UB men and women are ahead of last year's pace for qualifying swimmers to the season-ending meet in March. The men have qualified four individuals and two of their five relay squads, the women three individuals and two relays.
"When you look at the national ranking, from fourth to 10th place is a toss-up this year," Termin said. "If we go to the nationals and swim well, I think we can really improve on ninth."
For the second straight year, the UB men placed second to third-ranked Shippensburg at the UB Invitational this month. Last year, UB was 150 points out of first. This year, UB was 30 points out.
UB scored only in relays at last year's NCAAs. This year, three sophomores who have dropped their times 1-1 1/2 seconds since last March are strong contenders to place at the nationals.
They are Ray Willie in the distance freestyles, Scooter Blanchard in the backstroke and individual medley, and Bob Hermanet in the individual medley. Senior diver Brian Baggett has qualified, and senior freestyler Jason Reusch is expected to do so once he recovers from an injury.
The women return three Division II All-Americas. Junior Angela Blaser was second in the 50 free at the NCAAs. Sophomore Ann Marie Gorski was fifth in the 200 IM and seventh in the 400 IM, and junior Lorie Seifert was fifth in the 50 free.
Starting next year, the sights for both programs will shift, as each tries to build from the ground level of Division I.
Eastern teams rarely crack the Division I ranking and have a difficult time matching the budgets and recruiting efforts of the big-time swim powers.
Thus, the aims for Eastern teams are a high regional ranking and getting a handful of swimmers into the exclusive NCAA Division I meet.
It will take some time for UB to get on par with other schools in terms of athletic grants. UB's swim teams give five grants each this year. The maximum in Division I is nine.
"With the facility we have and the academic reputation of the school, we will be very competitive in the East," said UB women's assistant Kathleen Bloom. "The question is how quickly will it happen?"
Initially, it will be tough. Qualifying times for the Division I meet are far more strict than for the Division II meet.
Blaser is one UB swimmer close to the mark. Her best 50 free time is 23.6. The Division I qualifying time is 23.3.
The other Bulls and Royals, like virtually all Division II swimmers, have a way to go.
Willie, for example, swam a school record 4:35 in the 500 free this month. That was two seconds under the qualifying time. Should he drop three seconds this year, he might place in the top three at the Division II meet. But the Division I meet qualifying time is 4:23.
Termin says the fact many of his swimmers show marked improvement each season will help smooth the transition to Division I.
He thinks his team's extraordinary training techniques will give him an edge over many Division I schools.
The training program of each UB male swimmer is dictated by UB physiologist Dr. David Pendergast, who bases the workouts on neurological and neuromuscular tests performed on the swimmers. One result is the UB men swim fewer miles each day (about 9,000) than many swim teams (which commonly go 13,000 to 18,000).
"We're doing things differently here. That's one reason why I think we can do it," Termin said.
"There have been a lot of Division II programs that have out-recruited us every year with talent, but we have out-improved them every year. I think you're going to see the same thing at Division I. I think we train smarter. We improve more."