ON CAMPUS: Zilinskas helps Georgia win national title
• EDITOR’S NOTE: On Campus features graduates of area high schools who are playing college sports. This installment appears every week throughout the school year. If you know of anyone who should be included, email Mirza Zukic at firstname.lastname@example.org or call (724) 465-5555, ext. 267.
The Georgia Bulldogs are the national champions of women’s college swimming, and Indiana’s Rachel Zilinskas had something to do with that.
Zilinskas bought into the team concept and, even in events she wasn’t most comfortable in, emerged to score points in all three of her events in last weekend’s NCAA championships as the Bulldogs won their second straight national title, with 528 points, 125.5 ahead of runner-up Stanford.
A freshman, Zilinskas took ownership of the 200 backstroke in the postseason, finishing 15th in the NCAA meet at Minneapolis while taking 14th in the 1,650 freestyle and 15th in the 500 freestyle — more her types of events. It stemmed from a strong performance at the Southeastern Conference meet.
She was diagnosed with mononucleosis 10 days before the SEC championships in mid-February, but medaled in the 200 backstroke, taking third place in 1:52.74.
“College swimming is just on another level about the whole team (concept),” Zilinskas said. “That’s one of the reasons I did so well in the 200 back. I was put in that event because we didn’t really have any people in it. I don’t even know if I was seeded to score, and then I was top seed going into finals, which was just crazy for me. That was the one race I medaled in at SECs. My coach kept telling me, ‘You’re going to have a good 200 backstroke; we need you in it.’ Just knowing that it was not just something I wanted to do but something my team needed me to do, that’s something that adds an extra edge to racing. Just the sacrifice that a lot of people have to make about what events they swim, it’s all done for one team goal.”
Zilinskas got an NCAA A-cut in the backstroke. She took sixth in the 1,650 freestyle and seventh in the 500 freestyle to help secure a couple more spots in the national championship meet.
“After SECs, people realized how good we really are,” she said. “Everyone on our team just hands down swam so fast. … (We were) just riding off all the momentum from SECs, for sure. I was probably more ready for SECs (than NCAAs), because that was my focus meet where I needed to make all my cuts. Just knowing what was on the line, it was really easy for people to step up at NCAAs and make it happen.”
The national title — and Zilinskas’ role in it — was especially sweet following a hectic 18 months or so as she went from a decorated high school swimmer at Germantown Academy and a highly-sought college recruit to just plain worn out. Now she’s a rejuvenated college athlete.
“My whole season was kind of odd. I did not have a very good senior year at all, and then the summer after was even worse, so I credit my coaches and teammates so much for helping me love swimming again,” Zilinskas said.
“I didn’t arrive in the best of shape. I was beat up and not really loving the sport. … But each day I got a little bit better this year and each day I learned something new about the sport and about myself. It was really awesome. I’m happy that I swam well at the end of the year, but either way I’m just excited for the next couple years I have to compete for Georgia.”
JOSH BONATESTA, ADAM POLITES and ANTHONY ROCCO (Mount Aloysius, baseball): A freshman from Northern Cambria, Bonatesta has started six of 14 games for the Division III Mounties. He’s 2-for-16 (.125), but has drawn four walks in the process and is 3-for-3 in stolen bases.
His high school classmate, Polites has spent time at first base and pitcher. He allowed three runs, two earned, in an inning of work March 12 against Mount Saint Mary. In three plate appearances, he hasn’t reached base.
Rocco, a freshman from West Shamokin, has played some third base, starting at the hot corner on March 11 against Stevens. He’s 2-for-12 (.167) at the plate.
Mount Aloysius (4-10) begins Allegheny Mountain Collegiate Conference play with a doubleheader at Pitt Bradford on Saturday.
HANNAH HARLEY (Point Park, softball): A sophomore pitcher from Indiana, Harley has thrown 14 2-3 innings for the NAIA Pioneers, putting up an 0-2 record and a 7.64 earned-run average. Her 12 strikeouts versus four walks, however, indicate a stronger underlying performance – and that better luck might be on her way.
Point Park (6-8) has a two-game set at Midway (Ky.) this weekend.
MADDY GRIMM (Kent State, softball): A freshman third baseman from Ligonier Valley, Grimm has been phenomenal for the Division I Golden Flashes, already winning three Mid-American Conference East Division Player of the Week awards, most recently on Monday.
Overall, Grimm has hit .354 (28-for-79) with a .446 on-base percentage, five doubles, nine home runs and 32 RBIs.
Kent State (14-12) opens MAC play with a doubleheader against Miami (Ohio) in Akron, Ohio, today. The Flashes welcome Ball State for two games this weekend.
CAITLYN BENCE and SHANNON BYERLY (Slippery Rock, track and field): A freshman sprinter from Penns Manor, Bence improved in both of her events, the 100 and 200, from the outdoor season-opening Coastal Carolina Invitational to last weekend’s Shamrock Invitational in Myrtle Beach, S.C.
She ran the 200 in 27.71 seconds, placing 27th and the 100 in 13.27, taking 69th. Bence’s 13.55 was good for 12th place in the 100 at Coastal Carolina on March 14 and 15.
In the winter indoor season, Bence ran the 60, 200 and 400, posting season-bests in the 60 (8.42 seconds) and 200 (27.80) in the season-ending Kent State Tune-Up on Feb. 22.
A junior distance runner from Punxsutawney, Byerly took fifth place in the 10,000-meter run at the Coastal Carolina Invitational, finishing in 38:43.94.
Slippery Rock competes in the Raleigh Relays at NC State today and Saturday.