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Duke swimming and diving back in action against South Carolina after almost 6 weeks off

<p>The Blue Devils will kick off a busy stretch of dual-meet action Saturday afternoon at home in what should be a tightly-contested meet.</p>

The Blue Devils will kick off a busy stretch of dual-meet action Saturday afternoon at home in what should be a tightly-contested meet.

With winter break striking at the heart of the swimming and diving season, the Blue Devils are anxious to get back in the water against another opponent for the first time in almost six weeks.

Duke will close out the dual meet portion of its schedule with three meets in 14 days, beginning with Saturday’s matchup against South Carolina. A familiar foe—the Blue Devils and Gamecocks have squared off in dual meets each of the last nine years—the Gamecocks will travel to Taishoff Aquatic Pavilion at noon more acclimated to recent competition after both the men’s and women’s sides fell to Tennessee last weekend.

Although Duke has not competed since Dec. 3 when it dominated Queens University, the No. 23 Blue Devil women and Duke men are hoping to build off a promising fall in which both sides took third at N.C. State’s GAC Invitational. During that meet, both the men and women outscored Tennessee, results that should give the hosts confidence heading into Saturday’s competition.

“One of the things we are excited about is that a lot of people on the team are swimming faster than they ever have at this point in-season,” Blue Devil head coach Dan Colella said. “A big part of that is every year we take it up a notch in terms of our competitiveness as the caliber of athlete that comes in continues to improve. With that, expectations rise as the bar gets higher and people are rising up to it. I think the swimmers are a little more dialed in, a little more focused. With that, we’re seeing better results.”

A talented freshman class has been a strong catalyst for what Colella refers to as the evolution of his program.

Freshman Alyssa Marsh, along with sophomore backstroke specialist Mickayla Hinkle and senior freestyle sprinter Maddie Rusch lead a talented short-distance group with a clear advantage against South Carolina’s team. Events like the 100-yard freestyle and butterfly will likely be where the Blue Devils can amass points by attempting to place multiple swimmers in the top six.

Colella noted that the real battle would be in the middle-distance and long-distance freestyle events.

Junior Verity Abel, who holds Duke’s top times ever in the 500-, 1,000- and 1,650-yard freestyle will have her hands full with sophomore Emma Barksdale, who holds the Gamecocks’ top times in the same three events.

After a modest showing at the ACC championship last year, a young Blue Devil diving team has rebounded considerably so far this fall and will look to continue improving starting Saturday.

With a team comprised of three sophomores and one freshman, the men’s side continues to show more growth and consistency —at least one diver has already eclipsed last season’s best score in both the 1-meter and 3-meter events. The women’s team, the more experienced of the two, returns an older group led by sophomore Mackenzie Willborn, who paced the team in scoring last season.

The women will face a tough competitor in South Carolina junior Julia Vincent, who was named SEC Diver of the Week for the third time this season after the Tennessee meet.

“Diving is huge,” Colella said. “You see programs across the country who win conference championships based on their depth in diving. There has been an upswing in their performances, [and] they’re diving at a higher level so we’re excited to see what they can do at ACCs and hopefully NCAAs.”

The Blue Devil men will face their second strong opponent this season—the first being perennial powerhouse and then-No. 4 North Carolina State—as South Carolina enters Saturday just outside the top 25.

“The men’s side will be an incredibly competitive meet,” Colella said. “What you’ll see is a score that is going to go back and forth throughout the course of the meet. I don’t think anyone is going to break away and take control. As long as everyone steps up and swims hard, it should be a meet that goes down to the last event.”

Much like the women’s side, the men’s competition breaks down into who can dominate more in the sprints and distance.

Senior Kaz Takabayashi and sophomore Max St. George will lead the Blue Devils in the sprint backstroke and butterfly, where Duke should hold a slight advantage. Senior breaststroke specialist Peter Kropp will battle closely with South Carolina’s Nils Wich-Glasen, a junior from Germany who has posted swift times in both the 100- and 200-yard breaststroke.

The Gamecocks will likely own a massive advantage in all three distance freestyle events, with depth that could ultimately set Duke too far back to recover. Junior Matt Johnson and freshman Roger Kriegl will need to cut multiple seconds off their respective times in order to contend for first place.

After what stacks up to be a competitive meet for both sides, the schedule does not get any easier. The Blue Devils host Virginia, which has the No. 15 men’s team and No. 4 women’s side, before traveling to face North Carolina, where the men have a legitimate opportunity to beat the Tar Heels for the first time in more than a decade.

“We gave [North Carolina] the best meet we ever have a year ago,” Colella said. “We’re in position where we’ll be able to give them a crazy competition on both the men and women’s side. The most important thing is that the team is, in terms of attitude, excited, pumped, and ready to go to compete at the highest level.”

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