Oct. 11, 2014 NOTRE DAME, Ind. - For the University of Notre Dame men's swimming team, it was a start to the season that had the Fighting Irish thinking about the post-season.
For the University of Notre Dame women's swimming team, it was a phenomenal finish in the butterfly relay that set a tone expected to have a resounding impact on the Irish season.
Notre Dame's men's and women's swim teams excelled at the 50th Dennis Stark Relays Friday night at Notre Dame's Rolfs Aquatics Center. The Irish men swept Olivet Nazarene 240-140, grabbing blue ribbons in all 12 events. The Irish women placed second to Ohio State 194-184. Notre Dame claimed firsts in the 300 butterfly relay, the one-meter diving and the three-meter synchronized events. Illinois State placed third with 138 points and Olivet Nazarene finished fourth with 92 points.
Established to honor legendary Irish coach Dennis Stark, the unique Irish event follows a relay format. This early in the season, the emphasis is on building team unity as much as it is on flashy times.
Still, the Irish men turned in an impressive performance that had Irish men's head coach Matt Tallman excited.
"We have a lot of talent," Tallman said. "We have the ability to get double digits, 10 or more guys to the NCAAs, which has never been done. We've been as high as nine. We're going there to score a lot of points and open some people's eyes around the country, and hopefully everybody is on the lookout."
Tallman said the Stark Relays are a great way to start the season.
"It's all about pushing you against the clock. Olivet Nazarene had some tough competitors as well, and certainly gave us a run for our money in some spots that we needed to see. The guys looked good. We were trying to focus on doing the little things right, and whatever speed came with that was a bonus, and some guys really stepped up."
John Williamson, an Irish senior from Bloomington, Ill., picked up blue ribbons in the 400 medley relay and the 3x100 butterfly.
"A lot of today was checking and seeing where everybody was, how ready they are for the rest of the season," Williamson said. "You'll typically see times that are a little bit slower than what you'll see later in the season, because you're still getting back into the racing mentality. We trained pretty hard going into this."
According to Williamson, the Irish are focused on making this season the best in Irish swim history.
"We have two driving forces powering us this year," Williamson said. "One is the pulling from years past. We've built up our NCAA team every year. That momentum is going forward, and that's blown us into this season, wanting to get more people there.
"The second force is the freshman class. They have talent. They really are fast. I wouldn't be surprised to see a couple of them at NCAAs. Every day at practice, they're giving everything they've got. The beginning of the year is tough for a freshman. You have seniors who have been here for three years, and they know the training style in and out. They know the nuances of college swimming. They know how to hit the practices right. The freshmen have no idea what to do, and so you just see this raw performance emerge. I think this will be a really special team."
Diver Michael Kreft, a senior from Solon, Ohio, said the senior-dominated dive crew is also setting up to make a grab for NCAA glory.
"This is probably the strongest I've seen the diving team at this point in the season in the four years that I've been here," Kreft said. "We have a huge senior class, and we have a strong leadership base in both swimming and diving. Experience is huge, especially in diving. It's very mental. You have to be 'on' at that exact moment."
Bridget Casey's stunning finish in the 3x100 butterfly highlighted the Irish women's efforts. Courtney Whyte, American record-holder Emma Reaney and Casey swam the event in 2:48.49, edging Ohio State's 2:48.53.
Casey thrilled the Rolfs Aquatics Center crowd when she out-touched Ohio State's Amy Bopp for first.
"It was very exciting," Casey said. "The 200 fly is my best event. It's really nice to get to swim the 100. I didn't want to let (my opponent win). I just put my head down and was determined to win.
"I had to kick all the way in. It was a matter of kicking big, putting my head down, not breathing and then the long stretch. The timing of the kick was important. We practice that a lot."
Casey's strong finish established an important tone for the Irish.
"I'm the captain, and I want to make sure all of my teammates know that they can always put a good finish on," Casey said. "All of your finishes matter, even if you're a little farther behind. Finish the race--always, always, always."
Irish interim women's coach Tim Welsh praised Casey's determination to get the victory.
"Butterfly is a wonderful event for Bridget," Welsh said. "It's her specialty, and it runs in the family. Her sister swam the butterfly and her father swam the butterfly."
Welsh was pleased with the progress his team made in the Stark Relays, but he said the meet was more of a tune-up for the journey to the nationals.
"We moved people around a little bit," Welsh said. "We looked for some new combinations in some fresh events. Everything here was a relay, and relays are teams, so what we were looking for was team spirit, team camaraderie, team energy, team performance. All of the emphasis was on team unity. I think that the girls did a good job of that.
"This team can be extremely special. There are talented people on this team and, more importantly, there are some wonderful human beings on this team."
-- by Curt Rallo, special correspondent