Missouri's Stafford claims Newcomer of the Meet at Big 12 Championships

Saturday, February 25, 2012 | 11:26 p.m. CST

COLUMBIA — Because Shara Stafford's previous times had qualified her for the NCAA Championship meet next month, she wasn't making this weekend's Big 12 Conference Swimming and Diving Championships a top priority.

Turns out she didn't need to give her absolute best.

Stafford, who is finishing her senior season at Missouri after swimming for Florida for three years, beat out Texas' Karlee Bispo in two close races to claim the Newcomer of the Meet award. 

On Friday night, Stafford bested Bispo by two-tenths of a second to win the 200-yard freestyle. She won Saturday's 100-yard freestyle by one one-hundreth of a second. 

Stafford and Bispo have competed before at last season's NCAA Championships, but this weekend marked their first time competing for a conference title.

"This is the first time we've been able to really race when we're not tapered and swimming our fastest," Stafford said. "It's fun to get to race somebody that fast."

Missouri swimming coach Greg Rodenbaugh said he thinks Stafford's successful weekend on short rest bodes well for her success at the next level.

"I can't wait to see her swim in three weeks," he said. "I think she's in a great spot to just do some really nice things at the NCAAs."

Stafford said the biggest attribute she has gained in her year at Missouri was a new mental toughness. Although her focus is on NCAAs, she said the weekend was a positive step toward the meet.

"It's definitely a confidence booster," she said. "I went a lot of best times this weekend, and the ones that weren't best times were faster than I swam last season."

Missouri's only other gold medalist of the night was junior Dominique Bouchard, who defended her title in the 200-yard backstroke race, blowing out her nearest opponent by nearly three seconds. 

Bouchard, who holds the Big 12 record in the event, finished second in 200-yard backstroke in last year's NCAA Championships. She will return this year to see if she can take the title. 

Despite the fast finishes, Missouri's women finished third of the five teams, while the men finished third of three. Texas A&M won the women's title, while Texas claimed its 33rd straight conference title in men's swimming and diving.

Missouri has qualified twice as many swimmers for the NCAA Championships this year as it did in 2011, but Rodenbaugh says the team has a long way to go before it is at the elite level.

"We're just not quite there yet on the NCAA level, but we're real close on a bunch of places," he said. "We had a lot of guys and girls do really well this weekend, just not well enough in some cases."

On the men's side, Rodenbaugh praised freshmen Mack Darragh, who took second in the 200-yard butterfly, and Igor Kozlovskij, who took third in the 200-yard breaststroke. He also noted that freshman Ramon Melo broke a major milestone when he broke 20 seconds in Thursday's 50-meter freestyle race.

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