Oct. 26, 2011
EDITOR'S NOTE: This is the third in an ongoing series on UND.com, spotlighting the 2011-12 Notre Dame winter sports season with both written and video previews. Today, we take a look at the Fighting Irish men's swimming & diving team, which is overflowing with depth and talent this season as it looks to make major in-roads in postseason competition.
In 2011, Frank Dyer became the first Notre Dame swimmer to compete at the NCAA Championships since Tim Kegelman represented the blue and gold at the national event in 2005.
Since the program's inception in 1958, only four Notre Dame student-athletes have advanced to the NCAAs - Dyer, Kegelman and divers Michael Bulfin and Bob Ebel.
With the talent and experience on the 2011-12 men's swimming and diving roster, one could likely pencil in a few more names to that list in the upcoming spring.
"We genuinely believe and we're convinced that there is the possibility of sending several student-athletes to the NCAAs this season," head coach Tim Welsh says.
Welsh, who is now in his 27th season at the helm of the Irish program and has won multiple league titles, has the team on the cusp of breaking through on the national season.
"Everyone has to improve to get there, including Frank," Welsh says. "We want everyone to have that ambition to get faster with every day of practice and performance.
"We've been knocking on the door for a while. We're still knocking on the door. But now we have more people with their hands on the knocker. There will be a point when that happens, when we cross the threshold with a group. This team has that capability."
The group of which Welsh speaks fits the mold of any championship-caliber team: experienced, youthful, mature, talented, savvy and energizing. If you will, a cornucopia of what college swimming is all about.
Looking at the roster on paper - 16 freshmen, five sophomores, nine juniors and seven seniors - one immediately becomes aware of the welcomed challenge Welsh and his staff have ahead of harnessing this stable while creating a bountiful field of accomplishments and accolades.
"Everything about this season is going to be a new beginning," Welsh says. "With all of this newness comes energy, excitement, optimism and reorganization."
Notre Dame will be forming what is going to be the nucleus for its program for the next several years.
The departure of year-in and year-out BIG EAST Conference swimming standouts in Stephen Brus, Joshua Nosal and Michael Sullivan. The loss of a trio of all-league divers in Nathan Geary, Wes Villaflor and Eric Lex, the mainstays of the Irish diving corps. Ten seniors have graduated.
The arrival of a numerous United States Olympic Trials qualifiers. The addition of a U.S. Junior National Team member in Cameron Miller. The improvement of a Dyer, now an NCAA veteran, and Petar Petrovic, who last summer won the Serbian national in the 100 back. Sixteen newcomers and a bounty of existing potential on tap.
"When a group comes together, the first stage is forming," Welsh says. "We're in that stage right now. I'm not sure how long it will last - perhaps the entire season - but the outcome will be good."
This season's edition of the Fighting Irish is the result of a master plan of sorts devised by Welsh, associate head coach Matt Tallman and head diving coach Caiming Xie. Planning, with a touch of coincidence.
"The master plan for several years has been to improve to the point that we become more and more of a player on the national scene," Welsh says. "In order to do that, incoming freshmen need to be faster than graduating seniors.
Who will help lead in the execution of that plan?
Senior Marshall Sherman and junior Christopher Johnson have been co-captains for the 2011-12 campaign. Hard workers and no-nonsense individuals, the Irish are fortunate to have such goal-oriented leaders in their corner.
"Leadership is one of those things that forms through a process," injects Welsh. "You lead in several ways. On an athletic team, you earn your leadership. You demonstrate that you are competent and that you care. You show spirit and lead by example.
"Just as everyone leads and follows in different ways, all of our student-athletes will contribute to the success of this program in different ways, both in and out of the classroom."
"Last year's freshmen class was small and stable," Welsh says. "The `newness' we have now didn't exist last year and in previous years.
"If you look at this team on paper, it's an extremely talented team athletically and academically. By the time this team gets over its growing pains - the forming, the storming - and keys in on performing, we'll be a very good team.
"We want that to happen this year - to perform at a national level. Is that too ambitious? We'll find out."
Part of improving the overall team performance has been addressed by adding depth to the Irish lineup where needed, in particularly in the distance free, breast and short fly events.
Welsh adds that the most dramatic change in the roster will be the filling of these gaps to become more "balanced overall across the championship program format."
"It's early, but we can sense the excitement and the energy of this group each day they're in the water," Welsh says. "They redefine the level of their performance very day. Once everyone redefines what is `normal' for them, we'll get there."
Swimming faster every year. Diving better every year. It's all part of the master plan.
"The hope is that this year's graduating seniors can look back at their four years here at Notre Dame and say `I swam like a champion,'" says Welsh. "I want them to know that they helped contribute to the improvement of this team not only this year, but in years to come.
"We want to be able to continue to say that for a long time."