NORTH ANDOVER, Mass. – The process of starting a swimming program from scratch is nothing new to Merrimack College sophomore Jennifer Belanger. At South Windsor High School in Connecticut, Belanger helped start the program her sophomore year. In her three years with the tema, she qualified for the State Divisional Championships all three times, and as a junior and senior was named CCC All-Conference.
Her senior season, Merrimack was one of a handful of programs looking at Belanger. She was also being recruited by Central Connecticut, a school much closer to home, as well as Springfield College and SUNY-Cortland.
But the chance to be a part of something blossoming at Merrimack was very familiar, and attractive, to Belanger, who is a sports medicine major at the college.
This weekend, she will help lead the Warriors to the Northeast-10 Conference Championship meet, scheduled to start on Friday at Southern Connecticut.
“This isn’t my first rodeo,” she said. “It was definitely something that drew me to Merrimack. I remember what it felt like to start our high school program and to have the opportunity to do that again at Merrimack was something I was excited to get the chance to do.”
Despite being only a sophomore, Belanger has taken on a leadership role with the Warriors, along with senior Erin Lydon. After Belanger and Lydon were two of the program’s original three members last season, there were eight new freshmen and one sophomore added to the roster this season.
“I think we’ve had to (take on the leadership role) because there are a lot of freshman,” Belanger said. “They’re all coming together and were new to college. They are all having the same experiences and I had that experience last year, so Erin and I are always helping them out both with swimming and away from it. We’re a really close team.”
A more complete roster has the program feeling like a more complete team. Not only that, but more swimmers has meant that the team can enter more meets, shaping the schedule more like other members of the Northeast-10 Conference.
“It feels like a team now,” said Belanger. “We were a team last year, but it was different. It was more like three girls coming together and it was great, but just with having more girls now, it feels more like a team. We’ve been in more meets this year, so that also makes it feel that way. It feels like more of a regular season. We’ve been getting away for some weekends too, and that has been memorable. It’s good team bonding.”
It’s a close-knit team, and also an incredibly dedicated one.
Merrimack practices at 6 a.m. daily, with dryland training either right after practice or later in the day. Without an on-campus pool, the Warriors pile into vans before the sun rises and drive to Greater Lawrence Technical High School, where they hit the water before morning-drive radio shows even hit the airwaves.
“That alarm going off every morning can be tough, but we all want to do it,” Belanger said.
The improvement this season is palpable, Belanger says. The biggest advancement has been with the team’s endurance. The Warriors are clocking the same times at the beginning of practice as they are at the end of practice, which is a great sign moving forward.
That improvement has led to five first-place finishes for Merrimack this season, and three belong to Belanger.
The conference meet will also be a homecoming of sorts for Belanger, who lives just about 40 minutes away from New Haven, site of the Southern Connecticut’s pool. It will be the Warriors’
“We’re in taper mode now,” she said. “Our intensity is really, really high, but we’re not doing as much as we were in January. Our practices are a little shorter. We’re really trying to make sure that we are in the best condition we can be to race for that one race at conferences.
“But our intensity level is crazy with conferences coming up. The energy level is crazy. I don’t think our coaches know what to do with us. We’re all just really excited to get there.”
Mike McMahon covers Merrimack College for The Eagle Tribune and is the founder and managing editor of The Mack Report as well as on staff as a senior writer at College Hockey News. Follow him on Twitter @MikeMcMahonCHN