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Confident Blue Devils plunge into season

There is a buzz reverberating through the Taishoff Aquatics Center. Ever since the women’s team upset N.C. State in the ACC championships seven months ago, Duke’s natatorium has been home to a level of optimism that has been unmatched in recent history. To most Blue Devil teams, a victory over an ACC opponent is little cause for celebration.

The swimming and diving team, however, is the conference’s only member that does not award scholarships to its athletes. Therefore, when the women’s team defeated a Wolfpack squad that profited from the multiple benefits of higher funding, it was a momentous triumph, and the enthusiasm has yet to wear off.

“We were so excited,” said Katie Ness, who became Duke’s first ACC champion in 23 years with a victory in 200 IM last season. “We were a little disappointed [earlier in the season] because we lost to them by a small, small margin, and that would have been our first win in an ACC dual meet in a long, long time. It was very exciting in ACCs—we were ahead of several schools until the last day and still beat N.C. State. We were just very pumped up and very excited.”

Now the Blue Devils look to 2004-2005 season. On the women’s side, Ness and sophomore Jackie Rodriguez will try continue their dominance. Ness now holds 10 school records—six in individual events and four in relays—and represented Duke in the 2004 NCAA Championships. Rodriguez went into the ACC Championships last season undefeated in the 200 breaststroke and is also Duke’s top competitor in the long-distance freestyle events.

“[Ness and Rodriguez] are our two big guns,” head coach Bob Thompson said. “Katie Ness has already made NCAAs, and we think Jackie certainly has the potential to do it also. We were very disappointed last season when she just missed.”

With her freshman year behind her, Rodriguez is now better prepared for the upcoming season.

“I am hoping to just make improvements from last year,” Rodriguez said. “I now know what to expect in meets and everything.”

The Blue Devils will have to deal with the loss of last year’s talented senior class. Amy Halligan and Lauren Hancock—who both earned NCAA “B” cuts—have graduated, although Hancock has returned as an assistant coach. Also departed is Katie Fay, Duke’s strongest backstroker last season.

“I never had a class like last year’s senior class,” Thompson said. “It was the best women’s class I’ve ever had.... We get great kids and we get talented kids here and there, but to get that many all in one class makes such a big difference.”

There are talented underclassmen waiting in the wings, however. Junior Nora Stupp has shown flashes of brilliance, sophomore Michelle Aristeo appears ready to take over as Duke’s top swimmer in the backstroke and junior Julia Lewis appears to be the Blue Devils’ top shot to score points in the ACCs.

“Scoring in the top-8 is big,” Thompson said. “I think Julia Lewis in sprints has a shot to do it. The problem with the sprints is that it is one of the premier events—there a lot of talented athletes in the sprints. She played a big role for us last year. She is in great shape and she should do very well this year.”

The men’s team will be led by captains Teddy Helfers and John Humphrey. Helfers, Duke’s top long-distance freestyler, appears ready to have a career year.

“Teddy has come back in amazing shape,” Thompson said. “He is training better than he has trained in his entire life.... He’s on fire.”

Humphrey has had a harder time preparing for this season. After spending the entire off-season rehabbing from a hip injury, Duke’s record-holder in the 200 and 400 IM has been forced to cope with recurring ankle problems this season.

Other Blue Devils to watch for this season will be junior Billy Pearce, who was simply described as an “amazing guy” by Thompson, and sophomores Jay Ashenfelter and Kevin Arthofer.

“I would say Kevin Arthofer is our best chance to get a male swimmer into NCAAs,” Thompson said.

The men’s team has also received help from a strong freshman class, which is led by sprinter Ryan Packer, whom Thompson called a “stud.”

“The freshmen’s work ethic thus far has been good and they have been fun to get to know,” said Ashenfelter, who also identified Parker as the class’ standout. “When the end of the season comes around it will be interesting to see what they can do when it’s really time to perform because racing can be a lot different than training.”

What can we expect from the Blue Devils this season? Thompson said it’s hard to prognosticate in a world where the gap between scholarship and non-scholarship programs is steadily growing. The male swimmers, however, are content with exhibiting constant improvement.

“A successful season would be having many excellent swims and time drops across the board at ACCs,” Ashenfelter said. “A few team relay records were shattered last year, and with many of the same athletes still on the team and with the help of freshmen, breaking or re-breaking the team relay records would be very exciting.... There are ups and downs with training and our training forces us to make sacrifices, but being able to put together something special at the end of the season makes it all worthwhile.”

As for the women, the goal is clear.

“I think we can just hope to do better than last year,” Rodriguez said. “Beating ACC teams is generally our goal. Beating NC State at ACCs was huge, and I think we can do it again.”

Duke swims against N.C. State Saturday in Raleigh.

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