The Blue Devil men made program history throughout the 2015-16 campaign—finishing the fall semester undefeated, breaking into the national rankings and entering the postseason in the top 25—but they will not be satisfied until they redeem themselves for last season’s national championship performance.
Seven athletes will represent No. 19 Duke at the four-day NCAA championships at Georgia Tech’s McAuley Aquatic Center in Atlanta starting Wednesday, looking to improve on the squad’s 2015 showing in which the Blue Devils could not put a point on the board.
Last year, the 200-yard medley relay quartet of Kaz Takabayashi, Peter Kropp, David Armstrong and James Peek earned an automatic qualification to compete on the national stage but were disqualified for an early takeoff on a relay exchange in the evening finals. Kropp—who had earned an automatic berth in the 100-yard breaststroke thanks to his 52.02-second performance in the preliminaries of the 2015 ACC championships—could not replicate that success at the national championships in the morning and missed the chance to swim in the scored evening finals with a 19th-place finish.
The Blue Devils have already had a taste of disappointment in this year’s postseason. Despite entering the conference championships as the clear favorite to win the short breaststroke, Kropp finished seventh in 53.47 seconds Feb. 26—nearly a half-second slower than his morning swim of 52.96. The medley relay was eager to bring home another medal, but a new school record of 1:25.00 was not enough to put the Blue Devil squad on the podium.
“The objective is score,” Duke head coach Dan Colella said. “It’s all about racing, and these guys have done a great job all season long and have put themselves in the position where we have the possibility of scoring. We were hoping to break that 1:25 barrier at ACCs, but we had a couple of miscues. That was the frustration—if we had hit everything—but that’s just what happens.”
But the Blue Devils will have their shot at redemption Friday in both the 200-yard medley relay and the 100-yard breaststroke.
Duke is seeded 15th in its best relay event with its school-record time and will look to lower that mark and break into the top eight in hopes of swimming in the championship final. The Blue Devils are less than two seconds slower than top seed N.C. State and are within nine-tenths of a second of Michigan—the team projected to claim the final spot in the faster evening heat. Duke secured its spot in the B-final last year with a 15th-place finish in the morning with a time of 1:25.35.
With a season-best time of 52.13 seconds—just five one-hundredths slower than the automatic cut time—Kropp will enter Friday’s contest as the eighth-seeded swimmer. The Los Angeles native all but punched his ticket to the national championships with his first swim of the season, posting the then-fastest time in the nation in Duke’s dual with Pittsburgh Oct. 3. But excluding the ACC championships, Kropp has not posted a time near that early mark in an individual swim.
The junior did contribute a blistering 51.13-second split on his leg of the school-record-breaking 400-yard medley relay at the Nike Cup Invitational in November, but has been relatively quiet since. He relinquished his spot on the long medley relay at the conference championships after junior Dylan Payne beat him to the wall in the evening finals of the 100-yard breaststroke, outdoing the Blue Devil star in 53.34 seconds.
But Kropp was not tapered and shaved in February—he sported a full beard for the championships in Greensboro, N.C.—as his focus for the whole season has been on this weekend’s races.
“Peter posted that time at the first dual meet of the season and immediately took the pressure off about qualifying for NCAAs. He wasn’t shaved or fully tapered by any means for ACCs—the focus has been NCAAs,” Colella said. “Last year was an opportunity for him to experience everything and learn a lot, and his approach is going to be very different this year. He has been really focused on swimming his race, and if he does that, I think we are going to see some really great stuff.”
The breaststroke specialist will also swim the longer distance of his stroke discipline Saturday, seeded 44th based on his time of 1:57.75 from the conference championships.
Unlike at last year’s NCAA championships, Kropp will not be Duke’s only individual competitor.
Peek found himself third on the meet’s alternate list when the preliminary invitations were announced the first week of March but received his invitation thanks to scratches nearly a week later.
The sprinter will compete in his signature 50-yard freestyle Thursday, in which he is seeded 30th with a school-record time of 19.54 seconds from the ACC championships, and Saturday’s 100-yard freestyle as the 50th seed with a time of 43.53 seconds.
“He was very proud to have represented Duke last year on the relays, but every swimmer wants to get qualified individually,” Colella said. “For him to get picked up and have the opportunity to swim, I know he’s really excited about it.”
Rounding out Duke’s trio of individual athletes, Evan Moretti could compete in all three diving disciplines. The freshman punched his ticket for a return trip to Atlanta after claiming the 10th and final spot at the Zone B Diving Championships March 7 with a combined score of 708.35 on the three-meter springboard from both the preliminary and final rounds. Because Moretti earned zone qualifying marks for one-meter board and platform, he will be eligible to compete in those events as well.
In addition to the 200-yard medley relay, the Blue Devils will also race in the morning preliminaries of the 400-yard medley relay Thursday, looking to advance a second quartet to the 16-team evening finals. Duke is seeded 21st in 3:09.20. Colella will also bring juniors Michael Miller and Mike Seaberg as relay alternates.
Peek will kick off the meet with the morning preliminaries of the 50-yard freestyle Thursday.