COLUMBIA, S.C.—With just five points separating the Blue Devils and the Gamecocks heading into the final event, Duke needed a one-three finish in the men’s 400-yard freestyle relay for the win.
The Blue Devil “A” and “B” relays touched first and second.
The No. 22 Duke men edged No.19 South Carolina 154-146 Friday at the Carolina Natatorium with the sixth lead change of the evening. On the women’s side, Duke cruised to a 187-113 victory.
The Blue Devils’ top 400-yard freestyle relay of senior David Armstrong and juniors Dylan Payne, Mike Seaberg and James Peek led the race from wall to wall, averaging better than 45 seconds for each 100-yard split and finishing in a combined time of 2:59.91. The “B” relay was poised to clinch the team win with a firm hold on third place but sophomore Alex Pena and junior Kaz Takabayashi put an exclamation point on the victory by passing South Carolina’s “A” relay in the final 150 yards, touching in second in 3:02.95.
“We told the guys all week long that this meet was probably going to come down to the last relay. They knew that if they could get it down to the last relay that they could win the meet,” Duke head coach Dan Colella said. “And they absolutely stepped up. And it wasn’t just the last relay—it was a huge team effort. Multiple, multiple events had some great swims. We couldn’t be more proud of the outcome and everybody that was a part of it today.”
Duke dominated the heat in the men’s 200-yard medley relay to kick off the meet with each of four Blue Devils on the “A” relay recording the fastest split for his stroke leg. Backstroker Takabayashi sent Peter Kropp into the water for the breaststroke leg with almost a full second lead. Kropp and butterflier Armstrong put more distance between Duke and South Carolina’s top relay, and Peek split 19.71 seconds for the final 50 yards of freestyle. The Blue Devils finished in a combined time of 1:27.77 and the Gamecocks claimed second in 1:30.60. With a split of 19.75 seconds to bring home Duke’s “B” relay, Seaberg nearly chased down South Carolina for a sweep but touched the wall at 1:30.65 to earn third place.
But with just one win in the next five events—Takabayashi’s 49.05-second 100-yard backstroke—the Blue Devils were behind by almost 20 points as the men’s 50-yard freestyle heat stepped up to the blocks. Less than 22 seconds later, Duke had cut the deficit to six. Peek, Armstrong, freshman Sean Tate and senior Victor Chen swept the top four spots, with Peek claiming the win in 20.14 seconds.
With a one-three-four finish in the 100-yard freestyle an event later, Peek, Armstrong and Tate gave the Blue Devils the lead, 86-83. Stopping the clock in 44.82 seconds, Peek turned in his best dual meet performance of the season for the win.
“We knew every single point counted, so I just wanted to get up and race,” Peek said. “In that 100, I just wanted to get out and hoped I had the tank to come back, and luckily I got the touch. It was a lot of fun and team energy today was great.”
The lead changed hands yet again after the Gamecocks’ dominant performance in the 500-yard freestyle, but Duke surprised the host squad with a top-three sweep of the 100-yard butterfly. Takabayashi claimed his second individual win of the evening in 49.14 seconds with his teammates Michael Miller and Kenny Ng not far behind him in 49.35 and 49.88 seconds, respectively.
“Our sprinters have definitely been gaining confidence over the course of the season,” Colella said. “We have had some swimmers who have really started to break through. We have been training hard and we saw the results of that today.”
Freshman divers Josh Owsiany, Evan Moretti and Lee Christensen also gave the Blue Devils’ score a boost, taking second through fourth on the three-meter board and second, third and fifth on the one-meter board. With a six-dive score of 378.38, Owsiany fell just two points short of stealing the three-meter win from 2015 NCAA qualifier Jordan Gotro.
“It was great having men divers this year versus last year, and they actually performed really well,” Duke head diving coach Nunzio Esposto said. “Josh had an outstanding meet today. It was really great for me to see him rise to the occasion.”
Switching up its usual swimmer order for the women’s 200-yard medley relay, Duke went one-two to kick off the meet. Freshman Mickayla Hinkle, sophomores Leah Goldman and Isa Paez and freshman Maddie Hess were the first team to the wall in 1:41.47. Senior Chelsea Ye and juniors Ashleigh Shanley, Jessica Sutherland and Maddie Rusch finished second in 1:42.15—more than three seconds ahead of the Gamecocks’ top quartet.
The Blue Devils continued to play with their usual lineup throughout the meet, entering Goldman in the 200-yard butterfly and backstroke events. The Burlingame, Calif., native touched first in the butterfly in 2:01.17 and came into the wall just behind her teammate Hinkle in the backstroke for first and second in 2:01.20 and 2:02.40.
Hess swam the 200-yard freestyle and 100-yard butterfly for the first time in dual meet action and came away with wins in both events. Coming from behind at the 100-yard mark in the middle-distance freestyle, the freshman beat her first half split of 55.59 seconds to finish in 1:51.18. She took home the butterfly win in 54.73 seconds.
“I’m a really versatile swimmer. I do swim those events, but I just don’t get to swim those as often when we have so many other good girls,” Hess said. “I was really happy that I got to swim those events at one of our meets toward the end of the season.”
The Gamecock women claimed the top spot in five of the 16 events. Freshman Emma Barksdale donned a knee-length racing suit for the 1,000-yard freestyle and jumped out to an early lead against Duke’s Verity Abel. Barksdale finished in 9:51.14 and Abel in 9:59.17—her first time under the 10-minute mark this season.
But the Blue Devil distance swimmer had the last word. Abel kept a strong pace in the 500-yard event and steadily pulled away from Barksdale after the first 150 meters, finishing in 4:55.54 for the win.
“Coming out sub-10 minutes is really exciting for me and something that I didn’t think I would be able to accomplish at this time this season,” Abel said. “I thought after the 1,000 that would be my big race of the meet and I would be tired after, but I was happy to pull though and go 4:55. For me, that’s kind of close to where I want to be towards the end of the season.”
Friday’s matchup was the first of Duke’s three final dual meets for the season—all of which feature a top-25 opponent. The undefeated Blue Devils will head to Atlanta to take on Georgia Tech, Michigan and Indiana Jan. 16. The Yellow Jacket men sit just outside the top 25, the Wolverine men are ranked at No. 6 and the women at No. 9 and the Hoosier men and women sit at No.11 and No.15, respectively. Duke will wrap up the regular season against North Carolina—which has its men ranked at No. 18 and its women at No. 12—at home on Senior Day Jan. 30.
“On both sides, the back half of our calendar is a very challenging set of meets,” Colella said. “It’s a lot more competitive than what we faced in the fall, but at the same time, our guys are in a really good place to compete against these programs. Win or lose, it’s going to make us that much more ready for championship season.”
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