The Blue Devils have not finished in the top five of the ACC since 1981—when only six teams competed at the conference championships.
But the squad will look to claim the fifth team spot for the first time in a quarter century against more than twice as many teams.
Duke will head to Greensboro, N.C., for the four-day ACC championships starting Wednesday. The women’s swim team and both the men’s and women’s diving contingents will compete in morning preliminaries and evening finals, starting at 10 a.m. and 6 p.m., respectively.
The Blue Devils have progressed steadily up the conference rankings since head coach Dan Colella took the helm in 2006, breaking out of the bottom two teams in 2007 for the first time since the 1979 season. Duke wrapped up the 2013-14 campaign 210 points short of finishing in the top half of the 12-team conference but was disappointed with a 10th-place finish last season—when the conference expanded again to 13 teams—prompting the team to meet and iron out its goals for the upcoming season after returning to campus in the fall.
“We set out this year with the goal of finishing in the top five,” Colella said. “We knew that we really had the potential to make a sizable jump at the ACC championship. To be able to finish in the top five in this conference is pretty significant at the national level. Our conference is going to make some real noise when it comes to the NCAA championships.”
The Blue Devils will face four top-25 squads—eight-time reigning conference champion No. 5 Virginia, No. 10 N.C. State, No. 16 North Carolina and No. 17 Louisville—as well as a handful of other teams that flirted with spots in the final CSCAA poll. Duke will likely be in a tight race with Florida State and Virginia Tech for fifth place. The Blue Devils trounced the Seminoles 184-110 Oct. 23, but did not take on the Hokies in dual-meet action this season.
Duke appears to have the advantage on paper, with faster times in every relay except for the 800-yard freestyle so far this season. The Blue Devils also hold 28 seeds in the top 24 across all events—compared to Virginia Tech’s 27 and Florida State’s 23.
But a few of Duke’s top seeds are repeat swimmers, with multiple versatile Blue Devils entered in more events than they intend to swim. Sophomore Leah Goldman—the bronze-medal winner in the 100-yard butterfly at the 2015 conference championships—could swim the 200-yard butterfly or 100-yard freestyle on the final day of competition in addition to her signature 200-yard individual medley Thursday and 100-yard butterfly Friday. Freshman Maddie Hess might lead Duke’s backstrokers at the 100- and 200-yard distances Friday and Saturday, but could also make a splash in the 100- and 200-yard freestyles.
“We started to try the 200 fly at the end of the season. It went pretty well…so we decided to enter it just in case,” Goldman said. “I think I do have a good shot at scoring, and I want to get as many points as possible for the team, so there’s a possibility that I will be in it if it looks like I will score more points in that than my 100 free.”
Colella will have to balance his swimmers’ scoring potential for the conference meet with their chances of earning berths to the national championships in Atlanta when he makes final decisions about event entries. Goldman and Hess earned provisional qualifying cuts in their signature events at the Nike Cup Invitational in November, but their performances were tenths of a second off the times that secured an invitation to the big stage last year.
The pressure of national-championship qualification will be off for junior Maddie Rusch and sophomore Isa Paez. With their career-bests from the Nike Cup Invitational, Rusch holds the 10th-fastest time nationally and is seeded third in the 50-yard freestyle with a time of 22.14 seconds and Paez is ranked 15th in the country and seeded fourth in the conference in 1:56.14 in the 200-yard butterfly.
“It takes off a little bit of pressure for me in my individual swims, but I’m still pretty nervous and want to perform really well so I can score as many points as I can for the team,” Rusch said.
Rusch will also play a key role in qualifying relays for Atlanta. The New Canaan, Conn., native helped Duke earn an automatic qualifying time in a relay for the first time in program history during her freshman season, serving as the anchor freestyle leg in the 200-yard medley event. The Blue Devils fell short of repeating the feat last season.
But Duke has higher aspirations for this week’s relay swims—advancing all five quartets to the national championships for the first time in program history. If the Blue Devils earn an automatic qualifying time in one relay, they may swim any others for which they have achieved a provisional time standard.
Duke has already earned provisional cuts in both the 200- and 400-yard freestyle relays, with season-best times five-tenths and two-tenths of a second away from automatic qualification for nationals, respectively.
“We have always wanted to get relays to NCAAs, and in years past we have been strong in one or two,” Colella said. “This year, we have the opportunity to make A cuts in four of the five relays—and who knows, maybe all five. But we are definitely in a position where we can be getting all of our relays to NCAAs.”
The freshman diving trio of Evan Moretti, Josh Owsiany and Lee Christensen will join their female teammates Kendall McClenney, Kirby Quinn, MaryEllen Targonski and Mackenzie Willborn up on the boards this week with the men’s diving events contested a week before the rest of the conference meet because of the Zone B championships March 7-9.