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September 18, 2013

Oakland University swim program is going title hunting — again

By Mark Vest
C & G Sports Writer

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Oakland University senior Amr el Sayed takes part in a recent practice. After winning 14 consecutive Summit League championships, el Sayed would like to see Oakland maintain its winning tradition in the Horizon League.

While numbers don’t always tell the full story of the success of a sports program, in the case of the Oakland University men’s and women’s swimming and diving team, they can go a long way toward explaining why Golden Grizzlies coach Pete Hovland thinks the program may be in a place where, at least in some cases, it practically recruits itself.

The two squads have combined to win 10 national titles, and on 19 separate occasions, finished in the top three in the country during the program’s Division II days.

Hovland was an assistant to coach Ernie Maglischo when Oakland broke through to win its first national championship in 1980 ­and was at the helm when the program captured four consecutive Division II national titles in the 1990s. Current Director of Athletics Tracy Huth coached Oakland’s women’s teams to five consecutive national championships in the ’90s.

After making the switch to Division I in 1998, the swim program has continued to impress, as both teams have won 14 consecutive Summit League championships (previously known as the Mid-Continent Conference). For every year Oakland competed in the Summit League, the result was a league championship and an Oakland athlete being named as Swimmer of the Year.

The Golden Grizzlies’ men’s squad has finished in the top 35 in the country five times and had a 2012 recruiting class that was ranked 21st in the nation by CollegeSwimming.com.

Over the course of its history, Oakland’s swim program has defeated the likes of The University of Notre Dame, West Virginia University, Michigan State University, The University of Cincinnati and Xavier University, and has produced four Olympians — Hilton Woods (Netherlands Antilles), Scott Dickens (Canada), Dario DiFazio (Venezuela), and Haitham Hassan (Egypt).

It all adds up to a program with a rich history, and Hovland, who is in Oakland’s Hall of Honor, offered some thoughts as to what the keys have been to the program’s success.

“There’s not a lot of change over in coaches,” he said. “I’ve been here 34, going on 35 years. My predecessors, Corey Van Fleet and Ernie Maglischo (who was also selected to Oakland’s Hall of Honor) were exceptional in their own rights. Swimming at Oakland is not a minor sport; it’s one of our top-tier sports. We have support. People like the fact that our swimming programs do so well — in the classroom, in the pool and in the community. We like to think we do things right here. Look at our facilities; they’re second to none. We have all the ingredients in place to give someone the opportunity to be successful when they come to Oakland.”

With lofty achievements can come lofty expectations, and that is exactly what Hovland has for those who want to be a part of Oakland’s swim program.

“I think they know before they call or email us what they’re getting themselves into,” he said. “In the recruiting visit, that’s confirmed at even a higher level. We don’t want you or you don’t want us if you’re not willing to commit to being part of a championship program — committing yourself to being excellent in the pool and the classroom. Accept everything that goes with being part of our program — being outstanding citizens and giving back. That’s what we want, that’s what we expect, and that’s what we’re looking for. I think that’s why kids contact us.”

Hovland never imagined he would be leading the program as long as he has. And although it took the native Californian some time to adjust to Michigan’s winters, he expressed gratitude for the opportunity he has had to lead Oakland's swim program.

“This was my first professional coaching job,” he said. “It’s been my first and only full-time job. The combination between academics and athletics — it’s hard to beat. Swimming is an important part of the puzzle here at Oakland University. You don’t see that in a lot of places. I’ve been given a wonderful opportunity, and I’m grateful for that — it’s just a wonderful area to live. It’s been a great experience for me. My whole professional life has been given to Oakland University, and I’m fortunate I was given that opportunity 35 years ago.”

Despite all the success Oakland has enjoyed over the years, Hovland isn’t exactly planning to rest on his laurels. With Oakland’s move to the Horizon League having become official earlier this year, it means that after dominating the Summit League for nearly 15 years, a brand new challenge now awaits the Golden Grizzlies, and it is a challenge Hovland seems prepared to embrace.

“We’re extremely excited about it,” he said. “We’ve been presented with a new challenge by joining the Horizon League. We would like to continue where we left off. We have a string of championships on the men’s side that goes way, way back. We would like to keep that going — same with the women.”

Senior Amr el Sayed, a team captain, is from Egypt and learned of Oakland through Hassan, a coach who previously swam for the program. The tradition the program has established is something el Sayed said he would like to maintain as Oakland transitions into the Horizon League.

“We have a lot of tradition,” he said. “We try to teach it to the freshmen, and it’s been going on for like, decades now. It is very important for the team to maintain all the tradition. Now, we have a new league, and we won the title for the Summit League 14 times in a row. We’re going into the Horizon League, and we want a new 14 years. We need to keep this tradition going on. “

Maintaining the success that has been established for the program also means something to junior Grace Waller, who attended high school in DeKalb, Ill., and is also a captain.

“As swimmers and divers, we all bleed black and gold,” she said. “We love it. We embrace the culture. We try and show it in our everyday lives — not just in the pool, but out of the pool, (so) that we can represent our sport well, our team well, our coach’s well and Oakland. Reading up on OU, that’s the first thing you see is their tradition and what they’re all about. It is an honor to be part of the team.”

Aside from his desire to make a name for Oakland in the Horizon League, there are also other goals Hovland has for the Golden Grizzlies as the program moves forward.

“We would like to have more of a presence at the Division I National Championships in March every year,” he said. “We would like to be not only a top-30 program, but maybe a top-25 program in the next couple years on a consistent basis — not just every other year or every third year. We would like to be consistently ranked top 25 in the country with both men and women, with aspirations of going even further in the years down the line.”

You can reach C & G Sports Writer Mark Vest at mvest@candgnews.com or at (586)279-1112. Twitter Follow Mark on Twitter.