In the last couple of seasons, multiple Duke athletic programs have accomplished historic victories against Tobacco Road rival North Carolina.
One team, however, is still waiting to celebrate. And they have been waiting for a long time.
The Blue Devils will close out their dual meet portion of the season Saturday at 1 p.m. at Koury Natatorium in Chapel Hill, with the men looking to erase a losing streak that dates back to World War II and both the men and women hoping to win for the first time ever on the road. A win Saturday would be a first at any location against the Tar Heels for the Duke women, who moved up one spot in the rankings to No. 22 despite a tough meet against then-No. 5 Virginia last week.
The men enter Saturday’s contest two spots out of the top 25, immediately followed by North Carolina among schools receiving votes. With a men’s team stronger than it has been for decades, Saturday represents a legitimate chance to end a 78-year drought.
“I shared a story with the team about our first competition against UNC 12 years ago,” Blue Devil head coach Dan Colella said. “Truthfully, it was an embarrassment—not how we performed but just where we stood in the ACC at that point. It’s been 12 years, but we’re at a place in the team’s history that some exciting things could happen on Saturday afternoon.”
After moving up four spots to sixth at last season’s ACC championship, the Duke women expected continued improvement with many swimmers returning for the 2016-17 season. Factor in a talented freshman class and all indications point to a more competitive meet for the squad than its 179-121 defeat last year.
On paper, the meet shapes up to be competitive across the board, with no team dominant in any particular stroke. Junior Leah Goldman leads a group of Blue Devil butterfly specialists and individual medley swimmers that have the best opportunity to garner a significant number of points for Duke by landing multiple swimmers in the top six.
Distance freestyler Verity Abel, who competed for the Blue Devils in the 1,650-meter at NCAAs last season, continues to have her hands full in the third consecutive meet in which distance freestyle depth could pose an issue. Although the Cavaliers leaned heavily on one superstar—Olympic gold medalist Leah Smith—the Tar Heels possess multiple swimmers who can push Abel, including senior Liliana Casso and freshman Natalie Ward.
Relays will be crucial in determining the outcome for the women’s side. In three of the four relays, both teams have posted top times within two seconds of the other. Essential for amassing points—first place in a relay earns 11 points compared to nine in an individual event—the women’s battle could be decided by the 200-meter freestyle relay, the final event of the afternoon.
Multiple divers on both the men’s and women’s side posted season bests against Virginia, in a performance Colella labeled as “incredible.” Platform performances, in particular, improved dramatically, as freshman Nate Hernandez and sophomore Josh Owsiany posted the two best scores for the team this season. Freshman Jaina Gaudette surpassed her previous season best in the platform as well.
The youthful men’s diving team faces a formidable threat in North Carolina’s Jack Nyquist. The senior won both diving events last year and has already surpassed those scores throughout the course of this season. Junior Elissa Dawson and sophomore Maria Lohman form a dynamic duo for the Tar Heel women’s side, and based on season scores should secure a number of points for North Carolina.
“Energy and excitement has to come right from the start and there has to be that determination to perform start to finish,” Colella said. “We were most proud of how the team competed [against Virginia] and the energy and enthusiasm throughout. The divers were incredible last weekend and it was a great setup for the coming week.... This team is certainly poised and in a position to give them everything they can handle and then some.”
The Blue Devil men pushed the Tar Heels last season, losing by a mere 14 points, by dominating in the backstroke and breaststroke events. They have the ability to do the same thing again. Sophomore Max St. George and senior Peter Kropp return to Duke in those two areas, respectively, but face a much-improved North Carolina contingent.
In the freestyle events, sophomore Sean Tate has the potential to win the 100-yard freestyle for the men after the Tar Heels took both first and second in the event last year. In the same way Abel will compete with a host of North Carolina distance swimmers, junior Matt Johnson, who won the 1,000-meter event last season, will have to handle three talented upperclassmen in Australian seniors Jorden Merrilees and Eugene Tee as well as junior Henry Campbell.
With only large and competitive meets on the horizon, Saturday represents a final chance to face a team the Blue Devils know well in traditional dual meet action. History has the chance to be made for the two sides at Koury Natatorium should the men win for the first time since 1939 or the women notch their first victory against the Tar Heels.
“Both programs have areas where they are stronger than the other,” Colella said. “However, I think what’s going to be exiting about this weekend—it’s not that anybody on any particular team is going to dominate. It could go either direction with most events, and I think it will go to whoever is hungriest and the most prepared to race.”
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