When Mitch Berendes graduated from Davenport Central in 2014, he figured his competitive swimming career had come to an end.
Now a senior at St. Ambrose, Berendes is back in the pool and is part of the Fighting Bees’ new men’s and women’s swimming and diving program that competes for the first time Friday.
“It’s something I never imagined myself doing, swimming in college, but I’m excited about it,’’ Berendes said. “I’m really looking forward to seeing what we can do this season. It’s been good to be part of a team again.’’
Berendes is among 28 athletes — 17 men and 11 women — on the St. Ambrose team who have been working toward Friday’s season-opening dual at Illinois Tech.
The recently opened pool at Davenport Central is where coach Rob Miecznikowski’s team trains and will compete, hosting the first of its four home duals this season on Oct. 27 against Augustana.
“It’s a great facility and I’m glad to have a chance to compete here now,’’ Berendes said. “I think back to the old pool I competed in at Central and this is great. I think we’re all looking forward to our first meet and getting a chance to see where we’re at and what this is all about.’’
Miecznikowski arrived at St. Ambrose with experience in building programs.
He helped launch Iowa club programs in Waterloo and Iowa City, where he also coached the girls swimming team at Iowa City West High School from 1999-2015 and led the boys program from 2001-16.
Miecznikowski, who coached the boys program at Iowa City West to a pair of Iowa state team championships, draws on those experiences now.
He has found one of the biggest challenges to be just letting people know that St. Ambrose has a program.
“Once we begin competing, that will take care of itself,’’ Miecznikowski said. “People will see us compete and know we are here. We are working to create an environment that athletes want to be a part of and St. Ambrose has made a commitment to do this the right way.’’
While recruiting, he has found St. Ambrose academic programs in health sciences and engineering to be a good match with many prospective student-athletes.
One of only three men’s intercollegiate swimming and diving programs in the state of Iowa to offer athletic scholarships — Iowa and Morningside are the others — Miecznikowski is also selling opportunities as he recruits.
Freshman Noah Hoogestraat, a Cedar Rapids Prairie graduate who competed during his high school career for a cooperative program hosted by Cedar Rapids Jefferson, liked both the size of the school and the chance to help build a new program.
“As I was looking around, St. Ambrose had a lot of going for it,’’ Hoogestraat said. “I’ve been swimming since I was nine years old and I wasn’t ready to let it go yet. It’s exciting to have a chance to help build something good here. I think we’re all looking forward to that. We’ve come together as a team pretty quickly. We’re like a family and that’s been good.’’
Hired a year ago this month, Miecznikowski had time to put together an initial roster that includes more than just freshmen.
Berendes is one of three seniors on a men’s team that also includes two juniors and two sophomores. The women’s roster includes one senior and three sophomores.
“I didn’t really know what to expect getting back into it now, but it’s been good,’’ Berendes said. “The older guys on the team, we’ve been able to help the freshmen adjust to college and it’s working out well.’’
Miecznikowski senses that, too.
“We’re fortunate to have some athletes who were already on campus and we’ve brought in a few transfers and junior-college transfers to help spread our numbers out between the classes which I think long term is good for us,’’ Miecznikowski said. “It will give us a good starting point.’’
Eleven of the 28 athletes in the Bees’ program competed for Quad-City area high school programs and 23 are from either Iowa or Illinois.
The men’s roster has freshmen from Florida and Arizona while the women’s roster includes freshman Shradda Sudhir, a member of the junior national team in India.
Miecznikowski sees the program as an option for local and regional athletes.
“We have a chance to provide opportunities for local swimmers who want to stay home for college and we will offer those same opportunities for athletes in the region,’’ Miecznikowski said. “We can do that and be highly competitive. There is good high school swimming in this part of the country.’’
The Bees’ goals are centered around qualifying for the NAIA Championships, something that is based on time at meets throughout the season.
“We’re setting our goals high and that’s what we’re training for, to put ourselves in a position to achieve them,’’ Hoogestraat said.
Miecznikowski encourages his team to think big.
“We can qualify 18 men and 18 women for the national meet and within two years, that is what we want to be doing on a regular basis,’’ Miecznikowski said. “We want our athletes to expect that of themselves as they work and train to compete.’’