The Blue Devils will swim for victory with packed stands at Taishoff Aquatic Pavilion, but will be competing for more than a dual-meet win in their season opener Saturday.
Duke will host Pittsburgh Saturday at 11 a.m. as part of the Breast Cancer Awareness POD Meet, an inaugural nationwide philanthropic competition. Spearheaded by Blue Devil assistant coach Jesse Moore, the competition brings nine teams and their fans together in the fight against breast cancer.
“There are so many people who have been affected by this or know someone who has dealt with breast cancer,” Duke head coach Dan Colella said. “This event will catch a lot of people’s attention and will get a lot of people involved in the future. This has absolutely added to [the excitement about the start of the season]. It has added some additional motivation to get as many people out to the meet support this cause.”
Each school will raise money for the breast cancer organization of its choice through spectator entry fees and t-shirt sales at a designated home meet in October, and the team with the largest fundraising total, excluding additional donations, will earn a $9,000 bonus for their organization, comprised of $1,000 from one generous donor from each school. Sisters and former Blue Devils Catherine and Caroline Conklin supported Duke’s bid in the competition with their donation.
The Blue Devils will contribute the proceeds from Saturday’s meet to the Duke Cancer Institute, with the funds earmarked for breast cancer research.
The cause hits close to home for Colella—whose wife is a 13-year breast cancer survivor—and for the Duke Athletics community, as women’s lacrosse head coach Kerstin Kimel was diagnosed with breast cancer and underwent surgery in February.
“It has been a good program for everybody in terms of getting the athletes aware and giving back,” Colella said. “They are out there getting the word out amongst athletes and students on campus and doing whatever they can to get folks as involved as possible.”
The Blue Devils will aim to open the season with a pair of wins in front of the home crowd after splitting the meet with the Panthers to open the season in Pittsburgh last year. The Duke women claimed a 162-138 victory but the men fell 170-128.
Duke's newcomers will look to make a big impact on the Blue Devils’ overall score, especially with the addition of freshmen divers Lee Christensen, Evan Moretti and Josh Owsiany. Duke competed without a male representative in the diving well for the majority of the past season, so the trio will give the Blue Devils’ score a boost Saturday.
“They are bringing a wealth of talent to the program, and they have done exceptional things at both the club and high school level,” Colella said. “Last year we went into meets with a deficit, so it will be extremely nice to have these three doing their thing on the boards. Pittsburgh has some great divers, but so do we now.”
While the women’s squad has attracted national attention with the strength of its past three recruiting classes, the men have also acquired impressive talent to bolster their roster.
Max St. George, Judson Howard and Riley Hickman add depth to the men’s side in the sprints and strokes. St. George specializes in backstroke, posting a personal best of 48.07 seconds in the 100-yard distance at the Illinois Boys State Championships in February. Howard will join Duke’s strong breaststroke contingent, led by ACC record-holder Peter Kropp and juniors Dylan Payne and Mike Seaberg. Hickman adds depth to the Blue Devil sprint roster and could be a key factor in relays.
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“We have some really young talent, guys who did some exceptional swimming this summer, making Olympic Trials cuts or just missing them by a couple tenths of a second," Colella said. "They are swimming at a high level, and nobody should underestimate them this year.”
The Panthers showed off a strong group of freestylers in last season’s matchup with Duke and have reloaded with the addition of Brian Lovasik in the sprints and Aaron Sett in the 500- and 1,000-yard events. Junior James Peek will pace the Blue Devils’ sprint contingent and sophomore Matt Johnson will face Sett in the longer distances.
Duke will have to capitalize on its strength in the 100- and 200-yard breaststrokes in hopes of an overall victory on the men’s side. Kropp led the heat to the wall in both events against Pittsburgh in 2014, as well as the 200-yard individual medley.
On the women’s side, the Panthers have rookies poised to make an impact in the freestyle events. Rachel Brown posted faster times in the 50-, 100- and 200-yard freestyles at the YMCA Short Course National Championships in February than any Pittsburgh swimmer at the ACC Championships, entering her college career with lifetime bests of 22.82 seconds, 49.26 seconds and 1:48.01, respectively.
Junior Maddie Rusch and sophomore Leah Goldman went one-two in both sprints against the Panthers last year, and Duke could have a chance for a similar result Saturday with freshman Maddie Hess stepping up on the blocks for the first time.
The Blue Devil women stack up well against Pittsburgh in the stroke events. Freshman Alyssa Arwood will likely lead Duke in the breaststrokes, coming off a summer with personal best performances in the 100-yard event at 1:01.18 and 2:15.41 in the 200-yard distance.
After dropping all four relays in their home pool a year ago, the Panthers will look to put up a fight Saturday, and the meet-opening medley relay and closing freestyle relay may prove to be two of the meet's most exciting events.
“It’s going to be a matter of who’s hungry and ready to race this weekend,” Colella said. “I think there is the potential for it to be a fairly closely contested meet. With a big crowd behind us, we can do some great racing this weekend.”