Fourth place as freshmen.

Third as sophomores.

Second as juniors.

Starting tonight, the seniors on the Michigan women’s swimming and diving team look to close out their career with the award that has eluded them for four years – a Big Ten Championship.

“We’re just hoping that this year is the year for it,” senior Michelle Uhlig said. “We’ve trained all year really hard, and we’ve thought about it. It’s been our team goal from the beginning to win.”

In the program’s 26-year history at Big Tens, just one class of seniors has graduated without hoisting the conference trophy sometime during their careers. The Wolverines kick off their three-day quest for the conference title tonight at Ohio State’s McCorkle Aquatic Pavilion.

Michigan has more conference championships (14) than any other Big Ten team, all under the watch of head coach Jim Richardson. Between 1987 and 1998, Richardson’s squads won 12 straight.

Every day during practice, the senior class sees the 14 conference championship banners that hang high on the wall of Canham Natatorium. The Wolverines know it will take their best performance of the season to hoist a 2008 banner.

“Everyone needs to swim their best,” senior Justine Mueller said. “That’s all we can ask for. If everyone walks out of (there) with at least one best time, and we don’t win, that’s the way it was supposed to be.”

The seniors are making it a priority to lead an enthusiastic squad to Columbus.

Over the past few weeks, the seniors took extra time to foster a positive mentality. During practice, they took note of a teammate’s outstanding effort or speed. Later that night, the seniors would send an e-mail to the team highlighting what otherwise may have been an unnoticed performance.

“We’ve been working on camaraderie on the team with the swimmers and divers,” Mueller said. “We’re making sure we’re always cheering for everyone, getting behind everyone.”

During races, it’s hard to miss the Wolverines on the pool deck. They have just as much energy as the swimmers in the water. The loud cheers and enthusiasm have contributed to the team’s success this season.

The 11th ranked Wolverines (4-0 Big Ten, 6-1 overall) have blown away their conference competition all season, but they will face their biggest test over the next three days. Michigan hasn’t faced a ranked opponent since it beat then-No. 8 Texas in November.

No. 9 Minnesota and No. 13 Penn State will be the Wolverines’ biggest challenges. Richardson said the Golden Gophers have one of their fastest teams ever.

“It’s going to be the fastest Big Ten meet in history, and that’s what we want,” Richardson said. “We want everybody to be on their best, so that’s going to give us the great incentive to be on our best too.”

And the senior class knows it has great incentive to show one last time that it’s the best in the Big Ten.

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