The Blue Devils’ season has featured a number of program firsts, and the final CSCAA poll added yet another—the squad will head into the postseason ranked for the first time in program history.
On the heels of Duke's sixth-place finish at the women's conference championships last week—a four-spot improvement from last year—the No. 19 men will look to make a move of their own at the four-day ACC championships in Greensboro, N.C., starting Wednesday.
If the Blue Devils outscore last year’s total of 435 by more than 150 points, they will record their best finish since the 2011 season, which featured three gold-medal wins. But they will have to take on four other teams ranked in the final poll—No. 7 N.C. State, No. 13 Louisville, No. 18 North Carolina and No. 24 Virginia Tech, with Georgia Tech and Florida State also receiving votes.
“What we would like to do is be in the top half of the ACC—what we would love to do is be in the top five,” Duke head coach Dan Colella said. “This team has shown that they are especially capable of that. For us to be ranked 19th in the final poll and to have been ranked consistently all season is really exciting for us.”
The Blue Devils graduated only one senior from their championship roster that finished ninth at last year’s meet in Atlanta. Stefan Knight swam on both the 200- and 400-yard freestyle relays, which placed seventh and eighth, respectively, for a total of 90 points. But Duke’s reloaded sprint group features a number of contenders for Knight’s spot, including freshmen Sean Tate and Yusuke Legard and junior Dylan Payne.
Aiming for NCAA championship provisional cuts in both sprint freestyle relays, the Blue Devils will need to break their own program records for a chance to compete in the events in Atlanta March 23-26.
National-championship relay swims will also depend on the standout 200-yard medley quartet repeating last year’s feat of earning an automatic NCAA qualification. Kaz Takabayashi, Peter Kropp, David Armstrong and James Peek finished second with a time of 1:25.03 to claim Duke’s first medal in a relay event in program history. The squad earned the A-cut by six tenths of a second last year, but this year’s standard will be tougher—the mark stands at 1:25.30. The Blue Devils hold the third seed heading into Wednesday’s event with a season-best showing of 1:25.62 from the Nike Cup Invitational in November.
“We have a very solid chance of getting second, even possibly first,” Takabayashi said. “The four of us have been together for the past two years now and we have really gotten used to each other’s habits. It’s exciting being behind the blocks—especially for me going first—knowing no matter how I do there are always three people behind me who are exceptional.”
Takabayshi and his relay teammates have delivered many of the squad’s highlight performances so far this season. All four swimmers are seeded in the top 10 of their signature events and could be key contenders for the eight-man championship finals and for podium positions.
Kropp claimed the top seed for Friday’s 100-yard breaststroke courtesy of his statement swim of 52.13 seconds to kick off the season at the Oct. 3 dual meet against Pittsburgh. His time stands just five one-hundredths of a second away from automatic qualification for the national championships.
The Los Angeles native will take aim at Duke’s first ACC title in an individual event since Nick McCrory swept all three diving competitions in 2013 and the team's first swimming gold medal since Piotr Safronczyk won the 100-yard breaststroke in 2012.
Peek just missed earning a spot in the championship final of the 50-yard freestyle at last year’s championships, but won the consolation final in 19.74 seconds. The Forest Row, Sussex, England, native nearly realized his hopes of an individual NCAA championship berth, but this year he is seeded fifth with a season-best time of 19.79 seconds.
Although the 100-yard freestyle is not his specialty, Peek could also make a splash in the longer sprint. He is seeded 10th at 43.82 seconds—half a second faster than the NCAA provisional standard.
“Last year, I was a little upset with my evening swim [in the 50]—I missed the cut. So definitely the goal this year is making it to the championship final and getting the [A] cut for the NCAA meet,” Peek said. “The 100 free over the last four years has kind of been my Achilles' heel…. At Nike Cup this year, I swam a [personal] best time and I was very surprised by that, so I think that’s definitely a sign of good things to come at this meet.”
The Blue Devils will head into Wednesday’s swims with points already up on the scoreboard, thanks to the freshman diving trio who competed during the women’s meet last week.
Evan Moretti, Josh Owsiany and Lee Christensen combined for 82 points on the one- and three-meter boards and in the platform event. Moretti scored in all three contests, with his best performance coming on the first day of competition. The Scarsdale, N.Y., native made his ACC-championship debut on the three-meter board and tallied 354.15 points to place fifth.
“I totally surprised myself,” Moretti said. “I just wanted to score points for the team. The Duke team this year is just so strong and a great group of people you want to score points for. It feels good to be a significant part of it. It's great to make an impact and knowing that the [swimmers are] going into their meet with points is a huge booster.”
A week after watching their female training partners race through four days of preliminaries and finals sessions, the men will have their chance to take to the water in the same pool starting Wednesday at 4 p.m.
“It’s a fast meet and you are up against people who are about to be the top swimmers in the nation,” Takabayashi said. “The overwhelming excitement in the arena just gets me itching to race.”