March 3, 2014
Measuring the worth of accomplishment, and what exactly constitutes accomplishment, can be a loaded question. The goal in collegiate athletics, in particular, is to defeat all foes in a given contest to be the sole winner. In many cases, there are still milestones teams can achieve that, even if they are not the ultimate prize, can and will endure.
The second ideal might most accurately describe the range of emotions experienced by the University of Notre Dame men's swimming and diving team over the past two weeks of competition at the program's first Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC) Championship meet. The Irish, winners of their final two BIG EAST Championship starts, finished in sixth place Saturday night in their ACC Championship debut at the Greensboro Aquatic Center, but emerged with impressive performances in numerous events.
A total of 15 school swimming records fell during Notre Dame's four days of racing at the ACC meet, along with three event victories, a runner-up finish and numerous Irish swimmers posting both NCAA A and B-cut times. The full scope of the overall team performance really puts Notre Dame's inaugural effort at the conference championship into the proper perspective.
"The speed of the meet was extraordinary, and what we talked to the guys about was having to grow up during the meet," Notre Dame head coach Tim Welsh said. "This was definitely a men-to-men, mano-a-mano, throw it down hard morning and evening competition. There was nothing gentle about the meet, and the competition was pretty fierce.
"We had been in those type of meets in the past, and even at the BIG EAST meet against Louisville, Pittsburgh, West Virginia, there were really only two or three teams at any one time that were in the hunt. There were six teams in the hunt at ACCs from day one, and none of the six were giving anyone else in the field an inch, or a tenth of a second."
Although the distance between the teams may have realistically been wider than an inch, Welsh marveled on Monday at how truly close the ACC meet was from start to finish, and how by its very setup encouraged the best performance out of every team in the field.
"If you talk about teams seven through 10, it wasn't like they had zero points, so they were doing the same things (as the leaders)," he said. "The thing that was extraordinary about it, for us, was how intense the competition was in all seven sessions, both morning and evening. It was a quick adjustment and a hard adjustment, but our guys handled it well. We were able to adjust to it, but we had to grow up in a hurry, this was a manly meet, and we had to be at our best to compete in it."
With so many low times being logged, especially in morning preliminary sessions, Welsh felt that the Irish needed to maintain a finals level of intensity each time they jumped into the water to remain ahead of the pace. The strategy was a relatively simple one for the Notre Dame team to grasp.
"You had better come in during the morning ready to race your best, and for us, if you wanted to race at night, in the `A' final at night, you have to also race in the morning," Welsh said. "Nobody apologizes for that, and if you make a mistake, too bad, see you next season. That kind of harshness is not what we've been used to, but I am not apologizing for that, either. I think we need that for our program to grow, and that can only help us to become a better program."
Notre Dame set an early tone Wednesday night to open the swimming portion of the ACC Championship, posting NCAA A-cut times in both the 200 medley (1:25.46) and 800 freestyle relay events (6:21.74). Both efforts, while setting program records in each event, also provided the Irish with additional opportunities moving forward in the postseason.
"We went into the meet without an A time in any relay, and the A time allows us to swim other relays once we have an individual qualifier," Welsh said. "It was very important for the NCAA meet to establish A times, but we didn't just nick it. There were big drops for big University records, and those are relays in which we have had team records consistently over the last year or two.
"They were giant steps, and when you look at the spread between the 200 and 800 relay, show me that first night and I'll show you your team. We came out of that saying it was a great opening to the meet for us."
Senior two-time All-American Frank Dyer continued what had already been a standout ACC Championship performance on Friday with the first Notre Dame individual event win in meet history. Dyer reset his own program best in the 200 freestyle during the race finals, clocking an NCAA A-cut swim of 1:33.20 to take the win by nearly one full second over North Carolina State's David Williams. The winning time was Dyer's fifth program record heat of the weekend, including relays, in the meet's first three nights of racing.
"Frank's 200 freestyle, it's been two years since he went that fast, so for him to not only get back to that level but surpass it by a significant margin was terrific," Welsh said. "In pure Frank style, he led that race from start to finish. He was the first up off the blocks, the first to 25, 50, 75 and every other wall, so he led that race start to finish."
Junior All-American Zach Stephens joined Dyer atop the podium Friday with a winning swim in the 100 breaststroke. A finals heat readout of 52.59 set the ACC league record in the distance, and gave Stephens his first gold medal and second all-conference citation of the meet.
Stephens added a first place result and school record swim (1:53.34) in the 200 breaststroke on Saturday, and along with a runner-up finish in Thursday's 200 IM final earned the Bloomsburg, Pa. native, three all-ACC scrolls.
"Zach goes the other way around, he may have even been eighth at the 50 (in the 100 breaststroke)," Welsh said. "He was certainly back in the pack, but he finishes a race like nobody's business, and he certainly finished his races in grand style this weekend. Zach is an extremely tough competitor, and his 100 breaststroke broke the ACC's oldest remaining record. The 200 time set a meet record, and in none of those races was he ahead even by a body length.
"It was the same kind of competition throughout, mano-a-mano, side-by-side, keep on racing," Welsh added. "Zach really is just that tough of a competitor."
Experienced leadership and top finishes from Notre Dame upperclassmen was certainly a key to the team's success, but it was the ascension of those next in line that ultimately paid huge dividends. Three members of the Irish freshman class, in particular, made their presence felt in their first taste of conference championship collegiate swimming.
Tom Anderson reset his own Notre Dame program record (3:45.82) in the preliminary round of the 400 IM, and later added the top 100 backstroke time (1:44.05) in Notre Dame history to go along with his swim with the record-breaking Irish 800 freestyle relay squad. Kevin Bradley swam a key leg of the NCAA A-cut 200 freestyle relay (1:18.72) team, and chipped in a top B-cut performance of his own in the 400 IM finals (3:50.35). Trent Jackson earned points in the final heat of the 200 freestyle event after touching the wall in 1:36.86.
"This freshman class is good, and we know that they are going to be good," Welsh said. "We had Tom, Kevin and Trent at the meet, and all of those guys scored points. In Kevin's case, being on the relay his very first night, there was no pre-introduction. It was more like jump in the pool with a lot of sharks that are ready to go. Tommy is a big time competitor, and we were so excited for him at Iowa for his 400 IM time, then he went to the ACC meet and went faster.
"We saw signs this weekend with all three guys, including Trent, who had a disappointing 500 freestyle, comes back the next morning and makes the heat finals of the 200 free," Welsh said. "I think we see the makings in this class of a group that will be good at a conference and beyond level throughout their careers."
The team objective now shifts to remaining fresh and focused for the upcoming NCAA Championship on March 27-29 at the Jamail Texas Swimming Center in Austin, Texas. Notre Dame swimmers will officially learn who all has qualified for the meet travel roster by the middle of next week, which will signal the time to kick the road to the national championship meet into full gear.
"If we thought the ACC meet was competitive, it's a giant leap from the ACC meet to the NCAA Championship," Welsh said. "Obviously for the guys who we think are already on the invited list, it's back to work with full preparation for another meet a month from now. For the guys who still have one more chance to see if they can squeak in there, that's what their job is.
"We will know next week what our NCAA team makeup is going to be, and we look at that all the time. We want to advance in the NCAA Championship, it's not a plus one or a reward, this is part of the deal. We want to be measured by how we do at the end of March."
-- Tony Jones, Media Relations Assistant