At first, the Stephens College Natatorium shows no obvious sign the building houses a swim team.
Long, empty hallways weave throughout the building. None of them seem to lead to a pool.
But then barely audible sounds of feet beating water and a voice shouting above it all can be heard.
“1:30.9, 1:38.1, 1:46.8, 1:51.8,” the voice calls out.
Coach Laura Wacker rattles off times from a stop watch, measuring her swimmers’ progress as they swim repeat after repeat.
Coming upon the pool area, one begins to realize why the building sounds so empty.
The swimmers go about their business quietly. The silence is occasionally broken as Wacker calls out times and sends another set of girls off the blocks.
The scene is nothing out of the ordinary for the Stars, who begin their season at 1 p.m. Saturday at Stephens Natatorium against Cottey College.
It’s a long way, though, from where the program was 10 years ago.
“Half of the team really didn’t know how to swim,” Wacker said of the 1994 team. “They were learning to put their faces in (the water).”
It was a new experience for Wacker who came to Stephens after swimming at Missouri, then coaching club swim teams for 13 years.
“When I first started here it was very hard because you’re used to a certain intensity,” Wacker said. “You go from a team of 100 people who all want to improve. Then here we just wanted to have a team.”
When athletics returned to Stephens in 1994, there was a large interest in volleyball. In order to field a volleyball team the school had to have three other sports teams of at least eight athletes.
“I had four volleyball players (in the swim program) just to fill the team,” Wacker said. “It takes a lot of time to build a program from nothing.”
That has since changed. This year’s team is the largest yet with 24 swimmers. Stephens is a probationary member of the NAIA, and the new conference affiliation has had immediate benefits.
Under the NAIA, Stephens is able to offer athletic scholarships. All eight of Stephens’ returning swimmers are under scholarship.
“The attitude of the whole team is better,” Wacker said. “By giving returning swimmers scholarships, they feel more connected to swimming. Swimming got put on the back burner before because there were other things that were more important. Now it’s a priority.”
Wacker said attendance at practice has increased.
Although she didn’t have much time to recruit, Wacker was able to bring in two new swimmers and put them on scholarship.
“I don’t know if they would have come had we not offered a scholarship,” Wacker said. “Stephens is expensive.”
The two recruits, Kacia Sheat of Lamar and Amanda Hunter of Clayton, Calif., both swam in high school.
This year’s team also has the depth that was missing in previous seasons. Last year’s swimmers finished 1-3 in dual meets and placed poorly at invitationals.
“We didn’t do that well, but our team was so small that we had a lot of empty events,” Wacker said. “We have a much better showing this year.”