Eight of the 11 ACC men's swimming and diving programs enter the conference championship either ranked or receiving votes. Amid that crowded field of fierce competition, the Blue Devils will look to complement a series of impressive dual meet victories with a first-ever top-five finish.

Since the program’s first victory against North Carolina since 1939 Jan. 28, the Duke men have trained patiently in anticipation of their trip to Atlanta this week. The Blue Devils will compete Monday through Thursday at the Georgia Tech Aquatic Center looking to demonstrate why the team deserves to be back in the top 25. 

With No. 3 N.C. State, No. 10 Louisville and No. 14 Virginia appearing as comfortable guarantees to finish in the top 3, two spots remain for No. 19 Notre Dame, No. 21 Florida State, Duke, Virginia Tech and Georgia Tech to battle for.  

“We finished seventh last year, so we obviously would like to move up this year,” Blue Devil head coach Dan Colella said. “We just want to carry on with what [the swimmers] have been doing all year long in terms of performing. Our goal is to not only score as many points as possible and move up, but try to take it to the next level and get as many people and relays as possible qualified for NCAAs.”

Duke will arrive in Atlanta with 113 points and in third place—Miami technically holds third at the moment, but the Hurricanes do not have a men’s swimming program to add points—thanks to the team’s divers, who competed with the women two weeks ago. That total is a substantial upgrade from last year's effort, when the men entered competition with 82 points, good for seventh. 

Because of its driving success, Colella's team has the ability to capitalize on diving’s success and garner even further momentum in the first event of the meet.

“I think one of the things that has been a highlight for us all year long is the 200 medley relay," Colella said. “It’s the first event of the meet and it’s the team’s goal to get that relay qualified for NCAAs. That would be a terrific way to get things started.” 

The team’s fastest medley relay on the season, the quartet comprised of seniors Kaz Takabayashi and Peter Kropp, junior Joey Maginnis and sophomore Yusuke Legard, clocked in at a 1:26.27, just 0.4 seconds shy of an NCAA provisional cut time.

In individual events, Duke relies on its seniors, particularly in the breaststroke events that have proven to be the team's strength all season.

“Individually, we’re very fortunate to be going to the meet with a great group of seniors,” Colella said. “They’ve been great leaders all year. There’s no question that there’s always an added incentive that they want to go out in style.”

Kropp and classmates Dylan Payne and Michael Seaberg lead the breaststroke contingent, a unit that has already amassed more than five provisional cuts throughout the season. 

Kropp’s top swim of the season, a 52.60 in the 100-yard breaststroke, is less than a second away from a guaranteed NCAA cut. After his breaststrokers took first through fifth at the Nike Cup earlier in February, Colella noted that he expects as many as six swimmers to earn points for the Blue Devils in the breaststroke events this week, a remarkably high number for just one stroke.

Although the breaststroke races will showcase Duke’s depth, multiple other events should highlight the program’s overall talent.

In particular, the backstroke trio of Takabayashi, fellow senior Max St. George and junior Alex Peña are on the cusp of shattering school records. St. George sits 0.2 seconds away of the 100-yard backstroke record, and Peña is also 0.2 seconds out in the 200-yard event.

“I think we have the ability to have people scoring at a high level,” Colella said. “It won’t be as many people in backstroke, the IMs, sprint free [as in the breaststroke], but we feel confident that everyone who is going has the potential to score and that’s our goal.” 

Given how close the competition is currently stacked, the ability to maximize points and have as many swimmers score as possible will prove pivotal if Duke hopes to climb upwards in the standings. Having arguably the fastest team in recent memory coupled with strong senior leadership should bring the confidence necessary to fight for each possible point and add to the Blue Devil contingent qualified for NCAAs.

Following the conference championship, the men have to wait a full month for the NCAA championship, currently scheduled for March 22-25 in Indiana.