Tom Milich has seen Olympic competition up close and personal.
Cal Poly’s first-year swimming and diving head coach was an assistant on the 1988 U.S. Olympic team, which took eight gold medals, six silvers and four bronzes. But Milich feels the Big West Conference Championships, which begin Wednesday at the Belmont Plaza Olympic Pool in Long Beach, could be more exciting than the Olympics in some respects.
“I haven’t been to a college championship for the last few years,” said Milich, a former Fresno State coach who served as director of the Clovis Swim Club from 1992 to 2006. “There aren’t many meets as exciting as college championships. The NCAA meet is probably more exciting than the Olympic Games in the fact that you’re going for team championships. Everyone’s there for one purpose and one goal. At the collegiate level, conference championships and NCAA meets are what swimming’s all about.”
Both the Cal Poly women’s and men’s teams finished fifth among six teams at last year’s event. The women scored 249.5 points, behind UC Santa Barbara (785), UC Davis (756), UC Irvine (722.5) and Pacific (615), and ahead of Cal State Northridge (247). With 293 points, the men trailed UCSB (821), UC Davis (733), UC Irvine (644.5) and Pacific (615) but were ahead of Cal State Northridge (292.5).
The Cal Poly women’s team’s top performer all season, junior Stacey Sorensen, said the Mustangs have lofty goals.
“We’ve trained harder this year than my other two years,” said Sorensen, who will compete in the 50, 100 and 200 freestyles. “I have really high expectations for the team. Everyone’s really excited and ready to see what’s going to happen.”
The Cal Poly women have Division I wins this season over Cal State Northridge and the University of San Diego. Sorensen’s personal bests this season are 24.15 seconds in the 50 freestyle, 52.42 in the 100 freestyle and 1:55.26 in the 200 freestyle, all team season-bests.
“My expectations for myself are pretty high too,” Sorensen said. “I had kind of a disappointing end of the season last year, so I would love to do a little better this year.”
Sorensen said Milich has made a significant impact on the program.
“I think that he’s doing an excellent job,” Sorensen said. “I imagine it’s tough to come into a team and have to start over. He did a good job not only making it so he’s in charge, but he kept some of our traditions around. He pushed us harder than we’ve ever been. He pushed me harder. We have a lot of good recruits we’ve been looking at. I think the program’s going to take off.”
For now, Milich hopes the Mustangs can get past Cal State Northridge at the championships and see what happens after that.
Cal Poly returns only one male scorer – sophomore Kellen Ranahan – who finished in the top eight at last year’s championships, and no women in that category.
Ranahan achieved high school All-American status six times in respective events from 2002-05 at College Park High in Pleasant Hill.
Milich said other swimmers he is counting on for the men’s team include freshmen Corwin Di Dio and Thomas Kruip.
Of Kruip, Milich said: “Raw talent. He’s never been on a club team before, but in time, he’s going to be great. Even at this meet, he’s going to surprise some people.”
On the women’s side, Milich said that Sorensen will likely be joined in contention by freshman Christina Shilling, who is currently entered in five events.
Milich said, however, that he and Shilling will decide once they arrive in Long Beach whether she will swim in events other than the 50, 100 and 200 freestyles – such as the 200 IM or 500 free.
The championships run through Saturday. Sorensen said the four-day grind of competing as a team is difficult, but that this is the time all the increased training under Milich could come into play from an endurance standpoint.
“It gets tough by Saturday,” Sorensen said. “Everyone’s feeling the whole meet. We train all year long and start our taper, so our bodies are ready for such a long meet.”