GREENSBORO, N.C.—The Blue Devils battled for fifth in the team standings with Virginia Tech, holding on through the second and third days of the conference championships but could not withstand the Hokies' battery of A-final swims on the last day.
Duke finished sixth at the four-day ACC championships Saturday, earning 164.5 more points than its 10th-place finish last year with a total of 642.5. The Blue Devils broke five program records matching their best conference finish since 1979.
Sophomore MaryEllen Targonski stole the show on the final night of competition with a podium finish in the platform diving event. The Gastonia, N.C., native compiled a five-dive score of 286.85 for the bronze, with scores of 65.80 and 72 points on her first two dives to jump up to the top of the leaderboard.
“She really performed well, better than she did last year and this morning,” Duke head diving coach Nunzio Esposto said. “It's always nice to begin the first two rounds with dives for 7.5's, 8's. She even got a 9 on her two-and-a-half pike, so when you start off the meet like that, it really gives you the confidence to perform really well.”
The Blue Devils held a 7.5-point edge over sixth-place Virginia Tech heading into the fourth and final day of competition, but the Hokies put together a strong preliminary session performance to set up a comeback with four swimmers advancing to A-final heats, three to B-finals and four to C-finals, compared to Duke’s one, four and four, respectively.
The strong morning paid off, as Virginia Tech outscored the Blue Devils by more than 60 points Saturday to steal fifth by a margin of 62.5.
"Our goal has been to try to finish in the top five, and we were just shy of that,” Duke head coach Dan Colella said. “I'm sure when we look back, there are going to be places where we could have made up that difference, but all in all, we had some really great performances tonight. We are really excited that we made a nice jump… This is a conference that in the past three years has become one of the most competitive conferences in the country. It's exciting to be a part of.”
Sophomore Isa Paez led the way for the Blue Devils on the final day with a fourth-place finish in her signature 200-yard butterfly. The Medley, Fla., native passed two swimmers in the last 100 yards, breaking one minute with her back-half split for her final time of 1:56.04—a new school record.
Two school records set during the 800-yard freestyle relay highlighted Duke’s opening night Wednesday. Sophomore Verity Abel led off for the Blue Devils in 1:47.90 to break the program record in the individual 200-yard freestyle by three one-hundredths of a second. Freshman Maddie Hess recorded a split of 1:48.59 to set up two former 200-yard freestyle record holders for the back half of the race. Classmate Hunter Aitchison added a 1:48.87 leg and junior Brittany Friese came home in 1:47.90 to stop the clock at a combined time of 7:13.26 for a new Duke record by more than four seconds.
"We all were really excited about the 800 free relay because we knew we had a lot of potential to drop from our school record,” Abel said. “I also never really know if I'm going to be doing the 400 IM or the 200 free as an individual event, so it was really important to me to have the leadoff and try to get a best time and also give the relay a strong lead.”
The second day of competition featured two championship final appearances by the Blue Devils.
Hess claimed eighth in the morning preliminaries of the 50-yard freestyle with a new personal-best time of 22.44 seconds. The freshman moved up two spots in the evening, finishing sixth with a new best of 22.42 seconds.
Sophomore Leah Goldman also advanced to the evening finals with an eighth-place morning swim, recording her second-fastest time in the 200-yard individual medley with 1:59.41. The Burlingame, Calif., native finished eighth overall with a finals time of 2:00.64.
But Duke’s biggest session came in the day-three finals. Eight of the 11 Blue Devils in the evening’s scoring heats dropped time from their morning swims, including sophomore Lizzie Devitt and Hess, who both broke program records to earn their spots in B-finals.
Devitt dropped more than two seconds off of her previous personal best in the 400-yard individual medley with her morning swim of 4:16.55. The Rancho Santa Margarita, Calif., native shaved nearly a second off of senior captain Kiera Molloy’s program best mark of 4:17.41. In the evening B-final, she recorded the fastest freestyle split in the field to lower the mark to 4:16.29 and finish 14th overall.
“I'm really excited. Kiera, who was the record holder before, is one of my really good friends, and she was so supportive of me throughout this whole process,” Devitt said. “It's really great to have my team behind me. Getting through the race was tough, but thinking about my team, that's what motivated me to do well.”
Abel also used a strong freestyle leg to bring home her 400-yard individual medley, moving up from eighth to second in the C-final with a final 50-yard freestyle split of 27.36 seconds. The distance specialist dropped more than two seconds from her personal-best morning swim, finishing 18th in 4:17.84.
"We are really excited for Lizzie and very proud of her. She had an illness this fall that kept her out of the water for a period of time,” Colella said. “For her to come back, especially in an event like the 400 IM—she dropped a significant amount of time off her best to break the school record, and then to come back tonight and break it again was really exciting. Both gals tonight, Verity and Lizzie, really stepped up to get us started and really were the catalysts for the kind of performances we had tonight.”
Hess just missed the championship final in the 100-yard backstroke, finishing ninth in the morning with a new school record of 53.25. Finishing 10th in the evening, she lowered her personal-best mark to 53.11 seconds—14 one-hundredths shy of the last time invited to the NCAA championships last year.
Goldman returned to the championship finals with a seventh-place morning showing of 52.88 seconds in the 100-yard butterfly. The sophomore finished just off the podium and her own program record of 52.28 seconds, coming into the wall in 52.32 seconds for fourth.
Junior Ashleigh Shanley recorded two personal-best swims in the 100-yard breaststroke, breaking the 1:02 barrier for the first time in her career in the morning preliminaries with a 10th-place finish in 1:01.83—just behind Hokie Mackenzie Stewart. Shanley raced to a new best time of 1:01.77 to beat Stewart and win the evening consolation final.
“We talked about how today we were really going to focus on getting the points for the team and placing as high as we could for the team,” Shanley said. “At the start of the meet, I looked at my lane placement and saw that I was right next to a Virginia Tech girl, and I turned to our volunteer coach Athena and said, 'I'm not letting her beat me.'”
Shanley’s swim helped the Blue Devils retake fifth from the Hokies—one of four lead changes Friday.
The Duke swimmers hoping for national championship berths will have to wait two weeks to determine if they will be invited to participate based on their season-best times. Abel was unable to compete in Saturday’s mile due to illness and will head to Athens, Ga., for a last-chance meet next weekend and may be joined by a few of her teammates looking to take one more shot at their best events.