Duke took the meet's two opening relay races, but could not swim its way past South Carolina.
Eric Lin / The Chronicle
Duke took the meet's two opening relay races, but could not swim its way past South Carolina.

Despite back-to-back wins in the 200-yard medley relays to open the meet, Duke could not keep up the energy to hold off South Carolina Saturday.

The Blue Devils opened Spring semester with a 184-116 loss on the men’s side and 167-133 loss on the women’s side to the Gamecocks in Columbia, S.C.

Duke returned to competition eight weeks after a successful performance at Nike Cup Invitational and a productive winter training trip to South Florida, but this weekend the team didn’t compete with the same energy it had shown in November and December.

“This first meet coming off an eight-week layoff from competing always seems to be a roll of the dice,” head coach Dan Colella said. “Today we were flat. The energy wasn’t there like it’s been for the rest of the meets.”

On the men’s side, the Blue Devils faced the No. 25 team according to the College Swimming Coaches Association of America poll. Colella had hoped that Duke could give a ranked team a tough run for the overall win.

The women’s team had hoped to outscore South Carolina for the first time since 2011 by taking advantage of the Gamecocks’ weaknesses in sprint freestyle and breaststroke.

At the start of the meet, Duke seemed to be in good position to achieve these goals with wins in the 200-yard medley relay on both the men’s and women’s sides.

“That’s always an exceptional way to open up the meet,” Colella said. “The medley relay has each team throwing up its best individual swimmers in each of the strokes, so to come out with wins in those is really great to get things started.”

On the men’s side, Kazuma Takabayashi, Hunter Knight and Joe Maginnis gave James Peek a slight lead over South Carolina to set up his 19.88-second 50-yard freestyle split and a final time of 1:30.80. The women’s relay of Chelsea Ye, Christine Wixted, Jessica Sutherland and Lauren Weaver led the race throughout and touched the wall nearly three seconds ahead of the Gamecocks in a time of 1:43.50.

But the Blue Devils couldn’t hold their lead once the individual events began.

South Carolina turned in the top three times in the women’s 500- and 1,000-yard freestyles and 200-yard butterfly. On the men’s side, the Gamecocks placed two swimmers in the top three in every individual event except the 100-yard breaststroke.

Weaver and freshman Maddie Rusch were able to cut South Carolina’s lead on the women’s side to 12 points halfway through the meet with one-two finishes in the 50- and 100-yard freestyles. Weaver recorded a time of 23.53 seconds in the 50-yard event and 52.04 seconds in the 100-yards. Rusch finished just behind Weaver in the 50-yard freestyle in 23.73 seconds and out-touched her senior teammate in the 100-yard freestyle in 51.79 seconds.

Knight’s 100- and 200-yard breaststroke events were the highlights of the men’s individual competition. Knight touched the wall in 2:02.93 in the 200-yard race and out-touched Kevin Leithold of South Carolina by 0.07 seconds in the 100-yard breaststroke with a time of 55.78 seconds. Leithold recorded the 11th-fastest time in the nation in that event in November.

“Hunter continues to do an exceptional job,” Colella said. “He had some big races on his hands. In both cases, he had to come from behind to get it done.”

Positive individual performances and the team’s dedication to training during the past two months make Colella optimistic about the remainder of the season despite this weekend’s loss.

“We are in a better place than we have been before going into this part of the season and are looking forward to the next race,” he said.