Oct. 10, 2013
One does not ascend to the greatest of heights in a given competition by pure coincidence. In the case of the University of Notre Dame men's swimming and diving program, the motto, `To be the best, you have to beat the best,' needs to be altered slightly to explain the team's general philosophy.
The saying that fits the upcoming 2013-14 Notre Dame season would more accurately resemble, `To become the best, you have to compete against the best.'
The Irish will be tested early and often during their inaugural campaign as an Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC) member, and the program is ready to answer the call.
"Our schedule this year is real challenging," Notre Dame head coach Tim Welsh said. "We have just filled it with really fast teams, and the challenge to stay in the race with these team all season long will be a big challenge for us. Notre Dame teams like to play the toughest schedules any way that they can, so we are trying to get with the program and compete against the toughest schedule we can find."
Notre Dame qualified a program record nine swimmers for last season's NCAA Division I Men's Swimming and Diving Championships in Indianapolis, with a total of six Irish team members earning honorable mention All-America honors at the meet. The NCAA performance followed Notre Dame's sixth and final BIG EAST Conference Championship victory, which saw the Irish score a meet record 991 points on the way to repeating as the conference's top squad after reclaiming the league hardware in 2012.
For Welsh, entering his 29th season as the mentor of the Notre Dame men's program, seeing a high level of team preparation throughout the summer months, combined with the perspective gained from last season's postseason experiences, has set the stage for the new journeys that await the Irish.
"We will see teams like that (in the regular season) this year, and that's a good thing," Welsh said. "Michigan is the defending men's NCAA champion, and they don't have all freshmen, there are guys who were there last year. It's important to see what the leaders are doing partly just to know what it is, but also to accept what it is so it's not intimidating.
"If you look at our pool record board, there was a time when some of those pool records were set when our guys stood on the deck in awe. Now, we look at the same times, the same events, and say, `we can do that.' Recognizing it is going to be tough, but being at peace with saying `I want that challenge and I am not afraid of it.' That's what those meets do for us."
A strong summer of training for the Irish, which included six Notre Dame swimmers seeing action at the 2013 United States Open in Irvine, Calif., furthered the exposure of team members to the best competition in the country at the highest level of the sport. Welsh said that the team picked up where it left off once classes resumed in late August, and has continued building for its official start to the season.
"We have been training hard and I am very encouraged by the results," he said. "The spirit is good, the energy is good, and the outcome is good if you look at how fast we are going in our weekly test sets. If you look at our swimming and lifting workouts, they too have been challenging."
Team leadership is so often the key to any successful collection of talent, and the Irish have that in seniors Colin Babcock, Joshua Choi, Frank Dyer and Bertie Nel. Babcock, entering his second term as a Notre Dame team captain after serving in the capacity last season, is just the sixth two-year captain in the program's 56 seasons of existence.
"Frank has been our performance leader week in and week out, day in and day out since he's been here," Welsh said. "What's exciting and comforting for Frank is that he's not alone anymore. He's not all by himself, now he's got a cluster of teammates around him.
"Colin is a two-year captain, Bertie is a senior with international experience that most of our team members don't have, Josh is another in our long line of pre-med students, they have all been in the Rosenthal Leadership Academy. Their grade point averages are all over 3.0. This is a really solid senior class, it's just not numerically large."
Dyer became the first All-American swimmer in Notre Dame men's swimming history by way of a fourth place finish in the 200 freestyle at the 2012 NCAA Championships. He is the only Irish competitor in history with a pair of career All-America citations after earning an honorable mention All-America scroll with the 16th place 800 freestyle relay squad at last season's NCAA meet. Dyer was one of six Notre Dame swimmers to cop All-America status in 2013, with now juniors Zach Stephens (200 breast) and John Williamson (200 fly) joining the ranks of individual honorees.
The potential, both in terms of overall class size and the talent already on display, possessed by the Irish class of 2015 has Welsh patiently awaiting his team's future.
"A year from now, we will have the largest senior class we have ever had in our history," he said. "That class, it's now time for them to step up and grow up, they're upperclassmen now.
"If you look at their success, one of the things the previous performance through Frank did was to show all of us that the NCAA door was open, and that you can go there and score. Two members of the current junior class, Zach and John, did that last year, and a third one, Kevin Hughes, did so on a relay. Cameron Miller also qualified on his own last year. That class is feeling its way through, but they already know how to get there."
Tapping into the leadership of the four-member senior class and its own captain Patrick Murphy this season, while focusing on continuing to grow in and out of the pool, is the Notre Dame recipe for success for the standout junior contingent.
"We're looking for them to mature because in a lot of respects, junior year is a great year to mature," Welsh said. "The real world isn't necessarily coming in yet, and typically you have schoolwork under control. We are expecting a lot of growth from the junior class."
With a difficult and challenging schedule comes a new level of competitive intensity at the highest level of the sport. To endure the rigors of a long season, it is not at all uncommon for teams to taper, or gradually reduce training levels, to stay fresh by championship time. With no "easy" meet on the 2013-14 schedule, Notre Dame plans to swim full speed ahead to reach its ultimate goals of an ACC Championship victory and setting a new scoring team benchmark at the NCAA Championships.
"The challenge is going to be to step up, and the focus on the season will remain achieving NCAA qualifying times, more than likely at the ACC Championships," Welsh said. "The challenge we face, we compare it to climbing a mountain. The leader kicks his boots into the snow so others can step up. We have to kick some steps this year, but that doesn't mean we are going to sacrifice preparation for the ACC or the NCAA Championships so that we are rested for an in-season dual meet. We are going to challenge ourselves to step up no matter what."
Notre Dame opens the 2013-14 season on Oct. 11 with the 49th edition of the Dennis Stark Relays. In what has become the traditional first meet of each year for the Irish, a loaded field including Cleveland State, Valparaiso, national contender Auburn and defending NCAA champion Michigan will make the trek to the Rolfs Aquatic Center. The following day (Oct. 12), Notre Dame will swim Michigan and Auburn in a tri-dual meet at the Rolfs Aquatic Center.
The team's first road trip of the season will take the Irish to the United States Air Force Academy for the very first time. An Oct. 25 dual meet between Notre Dame and Air Force will culminate a unique training experience for Welsh and his team.
"We will train at altitude for the first time, a week at altitude at the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, Colo., and finish off at an even higher altitude at the Air Force Academy," Welsh said. "We haven't trained for any extended length of time at altitude before, so we're excited by the opportunity, a little nervous about what we will find. It will be a test for us, and that's why we're doing it."
Notre Dame continues its four-meet road swing with stops at Purdue (Nov. 1) and Pittsburgh (Nov. 9) to open the month of November. Both meets will be key points on the Irish schedule as the team looks to improve upon past performances in West Lafayette, and competes in its first official ACC dual meet at Trees Pool against Pittsburgh and Virginia Tech.
"If you look at our Purdue history, we usually compete pretty well when Purdue is here, but we've had a terrible time racing down there," Welsh said. "That is a major mark on the schedule. They have a great facility, a great program and a great coaching staff. There's no reason why we can't race well there other than we just have not been doing it.
"Pittsburgh and Virginia Tech are both strong teams, and if you look at last year's results Virginia Tech was ahead of us. We did finish ahead of Pittsburgh at the BIG EAST meet, but a different year is a different year."
A pair of home dual meets against Michigan State (Nov. 15) and Wisconsin (Nov. 16) will follow at the Rolfs Aquatic Center. A brief break in the competitive schedule over the Thanksgiving holiday sets the stage for the Iowa Hawkeye Invitational (Dec. 6-8), an event the Notre Dame team has highlighted as the key event of the first half of the season.
"This will be our focal meet for the fall," Welsh said. "Iowa by themselves is pretty tough, and we will want to look at this meet as a summation of the first semester and a preview of what our championship squad might be like later in the spring."
Following the team's annual winter training trek to the Copa Coqui Meet in Trujillo Alto, Puerto Rico during the first week of January, the Irish close their road dual meet slate with a pair of encounters at Northwestern (Jan. 11) and Louisville (Jan. 24) to open the second half of the season. The meet against the Cardinals, as Welsh noted, will provide another stepping stone for Notre Dame to overcome.
"It's been a long time since we've beaten Louisville at Louisville, and this is a major meet for us," Welsh said. "They will be in the ACC next year, so we will not face them at championship time this year. Given the rivalry between our two schools that probably adds a little to the outcome of this meet. As most teams are, they are tough at home."
Notre Dame's annual Shamrock Invitational (Jan. 31-Feb. 1) and a dual showdown with Cleveland State (Feb. 8) caps the Irish regular season, and will be the final lead-in to the program's first appearance at the ACC Championships. One unique element of the conference meet is the weeklong gap between the men's and women's championship competitions.
"It's very interesting in the ACC that the men's and women's conference championship meets are separate," Welsh said. "We haven't done that since our days pre-BIG EAST, possibly when we were between conferences and competed as an independent back in the 1980s. It will be a new experience for us, and not the least bit being that our events now come up twice as fast. Diving will go with the women's team (Feb. 19-22), and especially given the distance we will not be able to be with our divers when they compete at the ACC meet, but we will certainly follow them closely."
The men's swimmers will travel to the Greensboro Aquatic Center for the swimming portion of the ACC Championships on Feb. 26-March 1. A distinct level of parity within the conference itself is expected to create a competitive championship meet atmosphere.
"If you compare our times last year with ACC times as equal to see how they sort out, I think there were six teams within 20 points," Welsh said. "You've got to swim it out. There have been a few coaching changes in the ACC, teams are close together. It's going to be a really exciting time."
Welsh acknowledged that there is a degree of pressure within the program to replicate, even expand upon the success that the team has enjoyed over the past 10 seasons. Six conference championships, 12 total NCAA Championship qualifiers and seven total All-America honors earned in that span have set the standard for Notre Dame, and the move to the ACC is just the next step up the aforementioned mountain for the Irish.
"Everybody on the team feels the intensity that came along with the move to the ACC," Welsh said. "They are excited by it, nervous about it, but being nervous is a good thing. The last thing you want to be is complacent. We are not where we want to be as a program so being complacent will not help us. We need to be anxious and aggressive on the road ahead."
Top performers from the ACC Championships will be in a position to qualify for the 2014 NCAA Championships March 27-29, hosted by the University of Texas, at the Jamail Texas Swimming Center in Austin. As in years past, all divers will have the opportunity to earn their way to the NCAA meet by qualifying through the NCAA Zone Diving Meet (March 13-15) at the McCorkle Aquatic Pavilion in Columbus, Ohio.
Using last season's record-setting performance as it starting point, the Notre Dame swimming and diving program gained a taste for the level of competition on a national scale. By not being satisfied with past accomplishments and continuing to drive forward, Welsh believes that facing and conquering grander challenges will continue to shape the Irish into a regular national contender.
"Certainly we want to sit here in April and say we did return a large team to the NCAA Championships, we did score in individual events and advance relays, and we would love to get a diver there," he said. "All of those things are well within the range of what's possible if we keep our eyes on the prize every day. The guys all know what that ultimate prize is, and they all want to get there. It's a very competitive group."
-- Tony Jones, Athletic Media Relations Assistant