CHAPEL HILL—Neither of the perennial top-two teams at the Nike Cup Invitational was at the top of the scoreboard heading into the last finals session. For the first time in program history, Duke was in the lead on both the men’s and women’s sides.
The No. 23 Blue Devil men finished the deal Saturday, claiming the team title with a three-day total of 1,721 points at Koury Natatorium. The No. 21 Duke women held on to their lead until the final three events but ultimately finished second overall to North Carolina with 1,769 points.
The Blue Devils broke 10 team records and three pool records, made 39 NCAA championship provisional cuts and tallied 12 event wins and more than 60 career-best swims en route to their historic finish.
“We couldn’t be more proud. They swam absolutely terrifically,” Duke head coach Dan Colella said. “We challenged them at the beginning of the year to jump with two feet in and be committed at a level we have never been before. This is the fruit of their labor.”
Setting the tone for the meet with a pair of wins in the 200-yard freestyle relays Thursday, freshman Maddie Hess, junior Maddie Rusch, sophomore Leah Goldman and junior Jessie Sitherland knocked down the previous program record with a time of 1:29.75 and the men’s squad of junior Mike Seaberg, senior David Armstrong, and juniors Dylan Payne and James Peek broke the Koury Natatorium mark in 1:18.57. Both times are the fastest times in the NCAA so far this season.
The Blue Devils qualified 11 swimmers in the three scoring finals of the men’s 50-yard freestyle and four in the championship A final of the women’s 200-yard individual medley, led by a highlight preliminary session swim of 1:58.41 by Goldman for a new Duke record.
Rusch reset the program top time in the 50-yard freestyle after setting a career-best of 22.22 seconds in the preliminary heats, lowering the mark to 22.14 seconds and finishing second overall to Riki Bonnema of N.C. State by a tenth of a second. Bonnema recorded the nation’s top time to date, and Rusch the third-fastest.
“I’ve worked really hard this year, doing all the right things, and it’s really paid off,” Rusch said. “I haven’t gone a best time in that event for two years, so I was really excited.”
The New Canaan, Conn., native also recorded career-bests in the preliminaries of Friday’s 100-yard butterfly and the finals of Saturday’s 100-yard freestyle with times of 53.21 and 49.59 seconds, respectively.
The Blue Devils wrapped up the first night of competition with one more program and Koury Natatorium record-breaking relay. Juniors Kaz Takabayashi and Peter Kropp, Armstrong and Peek dominated the championship final heat of the 400-yard medley relay, building up a lead of more than four seconds and touching the wall in a combined 3:09.20—another national top time. Takabayashi’s leadoff backstroke leg of 47.57 seconds was also good for a Duke record.
The highlight swims kept coming Friday as the Blue Devils picked up right where they left off with wins for both the men and women in the 200-yard medley relays. The same men’s medley quartet from Thursday night again posted the top time in the nation and a new Koury Natatorium best of 1:25.62—just off the national championship automatic qualifying standard of 1:25.30.
“Obviously we would have loved to get that A cut,” Colella said. “But to be two to three seconds ahead of where we were in that at this meet last year is exceptional, and we are putting ourselves in a great place for great things at the end of the year.”
In the women’s race, freshman Mickayla Hinkle, junior Ashleigh Shanley, Goldman and Rusch touched the wall in a combined time of 1:38.70.
Rusch and Goldman were back up on the blocks two events later for the championship final of the women’s 100-yard butterfly. Rusch grabbed an early lead in the first 50 yards, but Goldman caught up to her teammate with explosive underwaters off both remaining walls. The Blue Devil pair tied for the win in 53.21 seconds.
“We got off to a really great start to the meet, and we are all here to swim fast,” Goldman said. “To tie the race with Maddie is like icing on the cake—you wouldn’t want to tie it with anyone else but a teammate.”
The Duke women set another two program records between Friday’s preliminaries and finals sessions.
Freshman Lexy Aitchison broke the 200-yard freestyle record twice, recording a time of 1:48.74 in the morning and posting a finals time of 1:47.93 to finish third overall.
The women’s 100-yard backstroke record changed hands three times over the course of the meet, with Sutherland posting a time of 53.83 seconds to lead off the women’s B 400-yard medley relay and Hinkle besting her teammate’s time a heat later to lead off the A relay in 53.48 seconds. But Hess had the final say, clocking in a 53.20 seconds in the preliminary heats of the individual 100-yard backstroke.
“It’s really exciting to see where the backstroke program is this year compared to last year,” Hess said. “Now we have three girls pretty much all the same speed, so it’s awesome competing against each other.”
Takabayashi closed out another record-setting evening for the Blue Devils by breaking his own 100-yard backstroke record set the night before leading off the long medley relay with a new team best of 47.46 seconds.
Duke left the pool at the end of the second day with a lead of 108 points on the women’s side and more than 300 points on the men’s side, outscoring the No. 2 and No. 9 Tar Heel women and men, and No. 10 and No. 8 Wolfpack squads.
But North Carolina would not go down in its home pool without a fight. The Blue Devil women posted three more event wins Saturday but could not hold off the Tar Heels through the final events, finishing second by 46 points.
Hess rewrote the Duke record books twice in the 200-yard backstroke en route to the top finish in the championship final, beating her morning best of 1:56.10 with a time of 1:55.14.
Sophomore Isa Paez surpassed her own program best in the 200-yard butterfly, touching the wall in 1:56.14 to win by more than two seconds. Her time is the third-fastest in the nation so far this season.
Over in the diving well at Duke's Taishoff Aquatic Pavilion for the only event not contested in Tar Heel territory, freshmen Mackenzie Willborn and Josh Owsiany claimed individual wins on the 10-meter platform. Willborn collected 253.40 points across five dives and Owsiany 320.65 in six.
“What we are seeing at this meet is really the beginning of our team having some true depth, not just one or two great performers,” Colella said. “It’s a team effort, and everybody was pushing to get back [to finals] at night. We are going to be a team that will continue to improve both at the conference and national level.”
The Blue Devils have wrapped up team competition for the fall semester but will send representatives to the USA Swimming Winter Nationals Dec. 2-4 in Federal Way, Wash., and the USA Diving Winter Nationals Dec. 15-20 in Indianapolis.
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