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Five Blue Devil divers take aim at NCAA championship berths

<p>Sophomore MaryEllen Targonski and the Blue Devil divers will try to create a figurative splash without making a literal one at the NCAA&nbsp;Zone B Diving Championships starting Monday.</p>

Sophomore MaryEllen Targonski and the Blue Devil divers will try to create a figurative splash without making a literal one at the NCAA Zone B Diving Championships starting Monday.

A year after falling one place short of competing on the national stage, sophomore MaryEllen Targonski will have another chance to climb back up on the platform.

As Targonski looks to secure Duke’s first NCAA championship berth for a female diver since Abby Johnston in 2011, five Blue Devils will head to the McAuley Aquatic Center in Atlanta for the three-day NCAA Zone B Diving Championships starting Monday. They will compete against 87 other divers from the seven states in Zone B for a handful of tickets to the national championships at the same pool in a few weeks. Targonski, junior Kirby Quinn and freshman Mackenzie Willborn will represent the women’s squad, and freshmen Evan Moretti and Josh Owsiany will be Duke’s first male divers at the meet since four-time platform national champion Nick McCrory wrapped up his collegiate career in 2014. 

“Any of them can have a good day and make it,” Duke head diving coach Nunzio Esposto said. “It’s all a matter of putting together two good lists, which they are perfectly capable of.”

Divers from the five zones competing this week will be selected based on the new qualifying system implemented in 2015. The top five female and top four male divers in each event will automatically be eligible to compete at the NCAA championships in Atlanta later this month. The remaining spots at the national meet will be filled based on the number of representatives from each zone who finished in the top 16 at the 2015 NCAA championships.

Zone B can advance nine women in the one-meter event, eight in the three-meter and seven on the platform. On the men’s side, Zone B is projected to produce the most Atlanta-eligible divers with 10 advancing on both springboards and eight on the platform. Once a diver has advanced to the NCAA meet in one of the disciplines, he or she may compete in any of the other three events in which a zone-qualification score was earned. 

In the 2015 platform competition, eight women were eligible to advance from Zone B, and Targonski finished ninth. But the Gastonia, N.C., native will enter Wednesday’s contest with an added season of experience and a podium finish at the conference championships to her name. Her five-dive score of 286.85 for the bronze at the ACC championships Feb. 20 marks her best performance to date and will likely serve to boost her confidence as she faces a tougher road to the NCAA championships than last season. 

Last year, Targonski advanced from the preliminaries in 10th place with a five-dive score of 227.25 and improved to 258.45 points in the finals for a total of 485.70—19.9 points shy of the final qualifying spot.

Targonski will need to produce two strong lists like her conference-championship performance and move up two spots from last year's zone meet to return to Atlanta for the women’s national championships March 16-19.

“It would be really nice to see MaryEllen have a list like she did at conference," Esposto said. "Certainly, if she can have two lists comparable to what she did then, she’s got a great shot of qualifying.”

Willborn will also look for her first NCAA championship berth, but is no stranger to national-level competition. The freshman finished in 12th on the three-meter board at the USA Diving Winter Nationals in December with a final round score of 247.90 and a combined score of 782.45.

The Flower Mound, Texas, native will need a similar performance Monday, but will only have a few hours of rest in between the preliminaries and finals—unlike the day break she enjoyed in Indianapolis.

“Mackenzie is perfectly capable of making it to NCAAs,” Esposto said. “Just like any other qualifying meet, to get in the right position she has to be on her game the day of competition.”

Quinn will join Targonski and Willborn on the springboards but will not participate in the platform competition. 

On the men’s side, Moretti and Owsiany will both compete in the full slate of events. The duo posted their strongest performances so far this season on the three-meter board—Moretti finished fifth at the conference championships with 360.60 points and Owsiany 17th with 307.65—but Owsiany may also be able to make a splash in the platform event. The Spring City, Pa., native tallied 295.15 points for a 14th-place finish in Greensboro, N.C., Feb. 20.

The pair will look to lay the foundation for future success, as the 2015-16 campaign has been a rebuilding year for a Duke squad left without a male diver after McCrory’s graduation in 2014.

“They are both very talented but inexperienced compared to someone like Nick [McCrory],” Esposto said. “But if they put together a good list, particularly on three-meter, they have a shot. There are a couple more spots for men than for women…so I think they have just as good a shot as the girls.”

After the ACC championships, the Blue Devil women appeared to have three swimmers in good position to receive an invitation to the NCAA championships. Those three put Duke one athlete shy of a roster size that would allow it to bring its B-cut relays. 

Sophomore Verity Abel was too sick to race in her signature mile on the final day of conference competition but went to Athens, Ga., a week later for the Bulldog Last Chance Meet. Finishing in a lifetime best of 16:17.89, Abel was just a quarter of a second slower than the final time that secured an invitation to the NCAA championships. She was listed as first alternate for the meet.

Esposto and the Duke coaching staff thought that the fate of the women’s relays would be up to the success of one of the divers advancing to the national championships through the Zone B meet, but the rules were clarified last week—only a fourth qualified swimmer could help the relays advance. Luckily for Abel and the Blue Devils, one of the 322 entered in the meet scratched, allowing the Westport, Conn., native and the sprint freestyle relays to extend their seasons.

With the pressure of Duke’s relay hopes off their shoulders, Targonski, Quinn and Willborn will be able to focus on their performances.

“Before we left, I told them, ‘Whether or not you make it doesn’t have any effect on the swimmers,’ and they felt really relieved,” Esposto said. “If it were a different situation, that’s not a great pressure to have on you going into a diving competition. We are glad for that.”

All five divers will climb up to the boards Monday, kicking off competition with the women’s three-meter and men’s one-meter preliminaries.

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