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Duke swimming and diving takes aim at Gamecocks in first meet of 2016

<p>After some time away for the holidays, the Blue Devils will jump back in the pool Friday, looking to make a splash against another ranked opponent in South Carolina.</p>

After some time away for the holidays, the Blue Devils will jump back in the pool Friday, looking to make a splash against another ranked opponent in South Carolina.

With the holidays and its annual winter training trip to Islamorada, Fla., in the rearview, Duke will kick off its 2016 schedule Friday with its first of two consecutive meets against ranked opponents.

Both Blue Devil squads closed out the fall slate undefeated in dual meet action for the first time in program history and will head to Columbia, S.C., to take on South Carolina at 5 p.m. at the Carolina Natatorium looking to extend their win streak to six. But it will not be easy on the men’s side—Duke has outscored the Gamecocks only once in 13 duals since 1965. Friday’s matchup will mark the first time both programs are ranked in the top 25, with South Carolina at No. 19 and the Blue Devils at No. 22.

Duke nearly upset the Gamecocks last season, falling 158-136 at Taishoff Aquatic Pavilion, but the Blue Devils forfeited more than 20 points without a male representative in the diving well.

“It’s going to be an incredibly competitive meet, and we are going to see the score go back and forth. I can see it going down to the last relay,” Duke head coach Dan Colella said. “Last year we didn’t have any male divers, and that really hurt us. From a swimming perspective, we probably won the meet. But this year South Carolina has improved from where they were last year, as have we. It really becomes a mental challenge—the team that really wants it should come out the victor at the end.”

This year, the freshman diving trio of Evan Moretti, Josh Owsiany and Lee Christensen hope to do more than put the Blue Devils on the board by challenging South Carolina’s Jordan Gotro at both heights. Gotro—a 2015 NCAA championship qualifier—is undefeated in dual meets on the three-meter board with a season-best six-dive score of 418.73 against Purdue Oct. 24. No Duke diver has surpassed the 400-point mark in the event so far this season.

Gotro also gave his best one-meter performance of the season against the Boilermakers with a score of 336.30. In their collegiate debuts against Pittsburgh Oct. 3, Moretti and Owsiany recorded season-bests of 362.33 and 331.50, respectively.

“This will be a good meet, especially for our freshmen, because it’s the first meet where we’re actually going on a bus and going on the road,” Duke head diving coach Nunzio Esposto said. “South Carolina divers are typically good. They’ve had a couple of qualifiers that have made NCAAs…so it will be a good dual meet for us.”

In the other pool, the Blue Devils will have their hands full trying to prevent the Gamecocks from repeating last year’s sweep of the top three spots in the men’s distance events.

Freshman Riley Hickman will look to keep pace with Akram Mahmoud, Tomas Peribonio and Cody Bekemeyer—South Carolina’s three fastest 1,000- and 1,650-yard freestylers of all time. Mahmoud is the Egyptian national record holder in the 1,500 meters, and he and Bekemeyer clocked the seventh and ninth-fastest NCAA times in the 1,000-yard freestyle this season against Florida Nov. 6 with races of 9:02.64 and 9:03.04, respectively.

In his first race in a Duke suit, Hickman won the event by almost 15 seconds against Pittsburgh, touching in 9:26.92—earning him the 93rd spot in the nation’s top 100 times.

“They have some phenomenal distance swimmers,” Colella said. “We have a young group of distance guys, so to swim [against] this caliber of athlete hopefully will bring out the best in them.”

The Blue Devils’ breaststroke contingent overwhelmed its competition in the fall, winning both the 100- and 200-yard events in all three dual meets, but will be tested Friday.

Junior Peter Kropp made a statement in Duke’s season opener against Pittsburgh, winning the 100-yard breaststroke in 52.13 seconds—just five one-hundredths of a second off of the automatic qualification time for the NCAA championships and 11 one-hundredths slower than his lifetime best. The time stood as the fastest in the nation until Nov. 21, when Missouri’s Fabian Schwingenschlogl dropped a 51.36-second swim at the Tennessee Invitational and Florida’s Caeleb Dressel claimed the win at the Ohio State Buckeye Invitational in 51.88 seconds.

Kropp was more than two seconds off his early-season mark with a second-place finish at the Nike Cup Invitational in Chapel Hill Nov. 20, touching in 53.26 seconds, but recorded a split of 51.13 seconds for his leg of Duke’s record-breaking 400-yard medley relay.

The Blue Devils’ standout breaststroker has raced the longer distance only twice this season—besting the field against the Panthers in 1:59.01 and against Florida State and Queens University of Charlotte Oct. 23 in 1:59.85—and scratched the event at the Nike Cup Invitational.

In the fall, South Carolina's Nils Wich-Glasen recorded national top-10 times in both events at the Georgia Tech Invitational Nov. 19-21, coming in at eighth in the 100 yards with a time of 52.36 seconds and ninth in the 200 yards with 1:54.74.

Kropp and Wich-Glasen split the breaststroke events in last season’s dual. The Duke junior was first to the wall at the shorter distance in 55.23 seconds and the Gamecock claimed the win in the longer event by more than four seconds and set a new Taishoff Aquatic Pavilion record with a time of 1:58.91.

“It should be a great challenge. Facing someone like this in a dual meet just better prepares them when they face a whole heat of that caliber at ACCs and NCAAs,” Colella said.

On the women’s side, the Blue Devils are favored to come away with their second win against the Gamecocks in as many years.

Nine Duke swimmers combined for 19 NCAA provisional cuts in the fall semester compared to South Carolina’s six—three from freshman Emma Barksdale, two from sophomore Kersten Dirrane and one from freshman Marissa DelGado.

But Colella has warned his squad not to underestimate the Gamecocks as the home team will be eager to earn its first true dual meet victory with an upset.  

“We are a team that is capable of winning this meet but we can never go into the competition not ready to go,” Colella said. “If we don’t swim to the best of our ability, we could end up on the short end of things.”

Barksdale’s signature 400-yard individual medley will not be contested in Friday’s meet, but the standout freshman will give Duke sophomore Leah Goldman a tough race at the shorter 200-yard distance. Barksdale recorded South Carolina’s second-fastest all-time swim in the event with a win at the Georgia Tech Invitational in 1:59.04. The same weekend, Goldman reset the school record she shared with Christine Wixted, touching the wall in 1:58.41 in the morning preliminaries at the Nike Cup Invitational.

Dirrane will aim to be first to the wall in the 100 and 200-yard breaststroke. The Rumney, N.H., native recorded season-best and career-best times in both events at the Georgia Tech Invitational, touching the wall in 1:02.25 and 2:13.67.

Blue Devil junior Ashleigh Shanley entered the season with a career-best time of 1:03.87 in the shorter breaststroke and lowered that mark twice in the fall. The Ann Arbor, Mich., native claimed the win against the Seminoles in 1:03.12 and finished fourth at the Nike Cup Invitational in 1:02.55. Sophomore Abby Artmann finished the 200-yard breaststroke in a career-best of 2:16.91 at the Nike Cup Invitational for Duke’s top time this season.

Both squads will return to the pool Saturday at 10 a.m. for unscored long-course meters time trials with hopes of adding to their lists of Olympic Trials qualifiers.   

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