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Northern Iowa’s Molly Lembezeder, right, rests after winning the 50 freestyle during a dual meet against Iowa State last season.

CEDAR FALLS — Doug Humphrey knew what he was getting into.

Tasked with rebuilding a women’s swimming and diving program that routinely found itself in the Missouri Valley Conference cellar, Humphrey knew better than anyone that he wasn’t accepting a glamorous job when he took over at Northern Iowa in 2012.

“When I got here, to be perfectly honest, I didn’t feel this was a Division I-level program,” he said.

Though he had nowhere to go but up, Humphrey’s vision was much greater than simply rising to the level of mediocrity.

“I wanted to make this a program not only the school and its members were proud of, but also build a team that can be competitive and a viable option for not only girls in Iowa, but surrounding states,” he said. “Instead of competing with Division II schools for girls, I wanted to compete with the likes of Iowa and Iowa State.”

That didn’t happen right away. As is the case with most reclamation projects, early results weren’t great, as the Panthers went winless in Humphrey’s first season.

But in short order, he started to bring in the talent he needed to begin the turnaround, and the wins quickly followed. UNI improved to 2-6 in Humphrey’s second year, then climbed above .500 with a 4-3 finish his third.

In that time, he’s also achieved his goal of wrestling recruits away from the state’s biggest programs. Junior Molly Lembezeder, who said UNI and Iowa were her top choices coming out of high school, agreed to come to Cedar Falls after Humphrey successfully sold her on his vision.

“Everything Doug said made me really excited to be a part of something that was going to grow so much,” said Lembezeder, the school record-holder in the 50- and 100-meter freestyles.

With the pieces in place, the Panthers’ incremental steps forward turned into giant leaps last season.

Contending for a conference title used to be out of the question for UNI. From 2004 to 2015, the Panthers finished in the bottom two at every MVC meet, with seven last-place finishes.

But following a 7-4 regular season, UNI finally made itself heard in the 2016 Valley race. After years of struggling to even reach the 300-point threshold, the Panthers scored 627 a year ago, good for third place.

The highlight came in the 400 freestyle relay, where Lembezeder, Crystal Florman, Aftin Phyfe and Autumn Roepsch won in a conference-record time of 1:51.42.

Individually, Veronica Herrmann won the 200 breaststroke, Lembezeder and Florman took first and second in the 100 free and Madison Rinaldi was victorious in the consolation final of the 200 backstroke. The success helped Humphrey earn Coach of the Year honors.

And with the 2017 race set to begin Wednesday, UNI is aiming for greater heights this season. Not only did the Panthers return all seven of their all-conference selections, they also brought in another strong recruiting class, adding more bodies to an already deep roster.

While hopes are high for an even better finish, moving up in the rankings will be a challenge.

Perennial conference power Missouri State and Southern Illinois, which edged the Bears by a half-point for the MVC title a year ago, were picked to take the top two spots again this year, with UNI projected to place third.

Though acknowledging the challenge they face, Panther swimmers have lofty goals, which they know won’t be achieved if they enter the meet intimidated.

“You can’t look at the past,” said Katie Taylor, a freshman who already owns four program records. “Just because a team performed well last year doesn’t mean they will again this year.”

For seniors like Aftin Phyfe, who agreed on good faith to join a program coming off a winless season, to even have a chance to compete for the Valley crown is proof she and her teammates were smart to put their faith in Humphrey and his staff.

“Coming in as a freshman, I think it was expected we’d just come in and do our best,” Phyfe said. “But coach has drilled it in our brains to expect more ... to look forward to what we are going to become and not what we hope to become.

“We don’t hope to win anymore. We expect to win.”

The MVC Championships begin at 6 p.m. Wednesday at the Campus Wellness and Recreation Center in Iowa City. The competition runs through Saturday.

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