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By Andy Ross
All it takes is a dream.
That is all it took to get veteran coach Jimmy Tierney to bring swimming to McKendree University, a small private Division II school in Lebanon, Illinois.
In just two years, Tierney has built McKendree to be a contender in the Great Lakes Valley Conference that features powerhouses Drury, Indianapolis and Truman State. Turning around programs in just two years isn’t unheard of. But, Tierney had to build this team from scratch as the school’s first-ever swim team dove into the pool in August 2016.
“We started with no pool, no athletes on campus, so we were recruiting people basically with my hopes and my dreams,” Tierney said Thursday night after his men’s team won the 200 free relay with a 1:20.96 to take down the likes of Drury (1:21.46) and Missouri S&T (1:21.65).
“These guys that have come in have bought into it and together we have created a neat and exciting culture,” he said.
That team culture has resulted in two overall wins at the GLVC Championships.
On Wednesday night, Matija Pucarevic won the 50 free final with a 20.25 to go 1-2 with his teammate Xander Skinner (20.29), and that gave Tierney confidence his team could possibly pull something out in the 200 free relay on Thursday night.
“That got everyone fired up last night and I think that carried over into today,” Tierney said.
They had momentum going into the 200 free relay and responded with a win. Pucarevic (20.37), Luca Simonetti (20.38), Throstur Bjarnason (20.70) and Skinner (19.51) swam the four legs for the first conference relay win in the school’s short history. They continued it into the next event when freshman Karlie Rimat won the 400 IM final with a 4:25.23 for the women’s first individual win in school history.
Just one night later, those same four guys, in the same order, won the 800 free relay with a 6:32.14. Pucarevic (1:38.33), Simonetti (1:37.85), Bjarnason (1:39.81) and Skinner (1:36.15) beat out the likes of Drury (6:36.39), Indianapolis (6:36.42) and Missouri S&T (6:37.11), taking the lead early and pulling away and leaving everyone else to battle for second. It was the school’s second relay win of the meet, this time winning soundly over two teams that sat at the top of the Division II national rankings headed into this meet.
Not bad for a school that didn’t have a pool to swim in until this year.
The Bearcats swam their first home meet ever on Friday, Oct. 20, against Saint Louis and conference rival Maryville.
“It was challenging from technical aspects. We never even tested everything out,” Tierney said with a laugh. “Fortunately one of our swimmer’s dads had done it before with the club he came from.”
He said the significance of the first meet attracted a big crowd, including the school’s president, James M. Dennis, who is a former swimmer and coach. Tierney gave credit to Dennis for helping bring an aquatic center to McKendree’s campus, making it a lot easier for the student athletes who had to drive close to 30 minutes to swim at a high school pool in nearby Edwardsville, Illinois, the year prior.
The new pool has certainly helped the team grow, as the men and women had 14 and five people listed on last year’s roster. This year, the numbers have grown to 20 men and 14 women, and they aren’t showing signs of slowing down.
In just two short years, Tierney has built McKendree from literally the ground up into a competitive team in one of the most competitive conferences in Division II. His success building the team really showed when his women upset No. 4 Lindenwood on Jan. 19, 174-82.
Overall, the McKendree swimmers have exceeded Tierney’s expectations.
“I didn’t expect to be here in year two,” he said.
The men’s team currently sits in fifth place out of ten teams at the Great Lakes Valley Conference Championships with 287 points. The team lacks the depth that teams like Drury, Indianapolis and Truman State possess, but the team has already proven they can throw four guys together and win a relay. And they did it twice.
The women’s team, although still growing, sits in fourth out of nine teams. Their highest relay finish was fourth in the 200 free relay at 1:35.67 to Drury’s winning time of 1:33.49.
Both teams are still growing and need a few more recruiting classes to be able to contend with the top dogs in the conference. It would be hard for any swimmer to be interested in a program that has only been around for two seasons, but McKendree is lucky to have Tierney, who has been coaching at the Big Ten level since 1988 when he began as an assistant at Northwestern.
He credits his many working relationships with coaches around the country and the world. He has been on USA Swimming staffs at the 1999 and 2007 World University Games, and was the head women’s coach for the USA junior team in 2001.
That experience and his vast network has helped him get swimmers from all around the world come to Lebanon, Illinois and swim for Division II McKendree University. And in just two short years, he has made everyone in Division II take notice.
If he can continue at this rapid pace, who knows where McKendree could end up four years from now.