The mission given to Chism-Essler by Mark Fox, Milligan’s vice president for athletic affairs and student development, was simple: grow the swim team by leaps and bounds in order to make the Buffs more competitive than they’ve ever been. Chism-Essler has started that process by rebuilding the program's foundation.
Expectations have been raised, and the culture is rapidly changing.
“They know that my goal in the next two years is to at least get close to winning conference,” Chism-Essler said. “They know that if they don’t step up, they’re going to see repercussions for that. Our team brand is changing drastically. We’re not just this little NAIA Christian school that nobody ever hears of. We’re going to change that this year.”
The change was evident when a few of Chism-Essler’s new recruits ran roughshod over the competition at Milligan’s first meet of the year, an invitational hosted by Linsdey Wilson College. Sterling Burnett, a freshman Chism-Essler recruited from Sevierville, won three of the first four events he competed in. Matthew McFalls, who signed along with Burnett out of Sevierville, also had an amazing debut along with Sara Farmer, a freshman out of Tullahoma Tennessee.
All told, half of Milligan’s swimmers are freshmen this season after Chism-Essler doubled the squad from nine swimmers to 18. The newfound depth paid immediate dividends as the Buffs finished third on the men's side, fourth on the women’s side and fourth overall.
But there is still a ways to go, and recruiting will continue to loom large as Chism-Essler looks to build the roster beyond anything Milligan’s program has ever seen.
“My goal number is 26, and we want that by next year,” she said. “I believe the biggest team Milligan has ever had was around 22. This is going to be a big jump, but the reality is that I need to have around 30 swimmers in order to be competitive. If we want to win conference in the future, that’s just going to have to be reality.”
Luckily for Chism-Essler, recruiting swimmers is a fairly cut-and-dry process. Prospects can either swim fast enough times to help the Buffs or they can’t, and there are plenty of online resources that allow Chism-Essler to sift through swimmers and find targets that are worth going after.
Her swimmers are also good resources, pointing her toward prospects from back home with the ability to come to Milligan and help the team. That’s how Parker Teliszewski, a newcomer from New Jersey, landed at Milligan this season. Emails also pour in from high school swimmers looking to continue their careers on the collegiate level.
Right now, Chism-Essler has a board in her office with the names of 38 recruits being targeted for the next signing class. Nine of them will be in attendance at Milligan’s first home meet of the season on Oct. 14. As the team expands, the goal is to build quality depth in order to become competitive in the Appalachian Athletic Conference meet and beyond.
“I’ve got to recruit fast, and if I don’t, we’re probably not going to improve that much,” Chism-Essler said. “Swimming is also a numbers game. I’ve got to recruit the numbers, but I’m also getting really lucky with talent as well. Both ends are very important.”
Among Milligan’s targeted recruits are a couple of swimmers with times that are at or near the threshold required to qualify for the Olympic trials. In terms of breaking through and establishing Milligan on the national level, landing either of these swimmers would be a quantum leap forward for the program.
“I might not be able to get a full roster of athletes like that, but if I can just get a couple, then that’s just another recruiting tool for me,” Chism-Essler said.
For now, Chism-Essler is busy changing the culture, raising the standards to ensure the program is built on a firm foundation. And once their feet are planted firmly on that solid ground, Chism-Essler doesn’t see any limit to how high the Buffs can reach.