Natalie Labonge, a senior member of the NC State swim team
When Braden Holloway first became the head coach of N.C. State’s men’s and women’s swimming and diving teams in 2011, he had lofty goals and high expectations.
“I just wanted to have two equal teams that were quality programs on the national scene,” he said, “and that every year, we’re vying for a conference championship.”
Holloway, an N.C. State graduate, has done that with the men’s team, and he’s starting to create a consistent contender with the women’s team as well.
Ranked No. 7 in the country, the women’s swimming and diving team is having one of its best seasons.
In five dual meets, the team has won four. The only loss came against No. 2 Texas.
Holloway knows what it takes to be an ACC champion. As a swimmer at N.C. State, he won back-to-back ACC titles in 2000 and 2001 in the 100-meter backstroke, and was a five-time All-American.
“I think they are ready to finish the season on a positive note,” Holloway said.
Senior Natalie Labonge, a team captain who swims the sprint freestyle, butterfly and relays, said when she first came to N.C. State in 2013, the program was mainly coach-led. Each year, she said, the team gained more confidence and has since found its voice and asserted leadership.
And with it came success.
“It makes the journey a lot sweeter when you think back and see how far our team has come and how hard we’ve had to fight to move up every year,” Labonge said. “Being consistently in the top 10 is pretty special.”
Last month, the Pack beat defending ACC champion and No. 8-ranked Virginia,led by Leah Smith, an Olympic gold and bronze medalist for the 2016 U.S. Olympic Swim team.
Labonge said that win was one of her proudest moments. It was a huge steppingstone for a program trying to establish dominance in the conference.
“That was an amazing weekend,” Labonge said. “Definitely my favorite dual meet that I’ve ever competed in. I think a lot of people would say the same.”
The women placed second at the ACC championships last season, their highest finish since 1982. Labonge said the only logical next step would be to finish first.
The championships start on Monday and conclude on Thursday.
“It’s going to be a really tough battle,” she said, “but we’ve been working all year for this, and whatever happens, I’m super proud of everything we’ve done so far, and it would just be icing on the cake.”