Back in the water for their first meet of 2017, the Blue Devils opened their spring season with the first of three consecutive dual meets leading up to February’s Janis Hape Dowd Nike Cup.
After securing wins against South Carolina, the Duke men and women squads could not have asked for a better start to that stretch.
The Blue Devil men edged past the Gamecocks Saturday at Taishoff Aquatics Pavilion in a neck-and-neck competition that came down to the final relay. The men pulled out a 160.5 to 139.5 win thanks to sophomore Max St. George’s victories in two backstroke events and a heroic final push by freshman Miles Williams in the men’s 400-yard freestyle relay.
The women's event was not as dramatic, as No. 23 Duke cruised to a 167-133 win led by two individual wins each by junior Verity Abel and senior Maddie Rusch.
“[I'm] always excited about a win,” Duke head coach Dan Colella said. “We knew that the men’s meet would probably go down right to the last relay, which it did.... Their energy and attitude was such that if we didn't really turn things around mid-meet, this final result would have been really different.”
Although Duke grabbed an early lead in the men's competition, South Carolina battled back with a first through fourth-place sweep in the 200-yard IM and another sweep of the top three spots in the men’s 500-yard freestyle. By the final event—the men’s 400-yard freestyle relay—the Blue Devils led the Gamecocks by just eight points, setting up an intense ending to the meet.
In that final relay, Duke's A team of sophomore Yusuke Legard, sophomore Sean Tate, senior Michael Seaberg and senior Kaz Takabayashi, and B team of Williams, junior Alex Pena, senior Bradley Cline and senior Peter Kropp started off with a slight lead ahead of South Carolina's A squad. Thanks to strong pulls by Cline and Tate, the Blue Devils were able to pull away from the Gamecocks, and Williams’ final push put him ahead of Takabayashi, giving Duke’s B squad an upset win against the A squad.
Also contributing to the men’s team’s final push to victory was a first-through-third sweep by the diving squad on the 3-meter board. Freshman Nathaniel Hernandez topped the ledger with a final score of 371.25, followed by sophomores Josh Owsiany and Evan Moratti with marks of 329.40 and 324.83, respectively.
Although South Carolina kept the match close with wins in more events, including the 1000-yard and 200-yard freestyle and the 100-yard breaststroke, several other Blue Devils notched strong individual performances.
St. George won a close 100-yard backstroke race with a time of 48:54—less than four tenths of a second faster than the tied second place time of 48.92 between the Gamecocks' Jonathan Boland and Takabayashi. St. George then continued his momentum by finishing first ahead of four South Carolina swimmers in the 200-yard backstroke.
The Blue Devils earned more points when Seaberg won the 50-yard freestyle in 20.74 seconds, which was just 0.14 seconds ahead of Legard's time. Legard would notch his own victory in the 100-yard freestyle, beating out Boland by 0.26 seconds.
“[I’m] very proud of [our swimmers] and how they stepped up their game in the second half of the competition to really take it down to the last relay and then to win,” Colella said. “We'll always take a W.”
While the men’s team was battling it out in their events, the women’s team maintained control throughout its meet.
The Blue Devils started the day off with first- and second-place wins in the 200-yard medley relay. The A team, consisting of sophomore Mickayla Hinkle, senior Ashleigh Shanley, freshman Alyssa Marsh and Rusch broke a Taishoff Aquatics Pavilion record with a time of 1:40.24.
Abel finished nearly 10 seconds ahead of South Carolina’s Sarah Smith to win the 1000-yard freestyle with a time 10:04.90, and she added another victory in the 500-yard freestyle, as she pulled away from her closest competition by almost four seconds with a time of 4:54.37.
In the women’s 100-yard backstroke, sophomore Maddie Hess and Hinkle secured first- and second-place finishes, and Shanley took the 100-yard breaststroke at 1:02.34. Rusch dominated the shorter freestyle events, finishing first in both the 50-yard and 100-yard sprints.
Duke rounded out its top finishes with a first-through-fourth place sweep of the 100-yard butterfly, led by Marsh's time of 53.70.
The Blue Devils' win against South Carolina is a strong first step in a series of three back-to-back meets. They will next host the No. 4 Virginia women's team and 15th-ranked Cavalier men Friday and then travel down the road to Chapel Hill to swim against North Carolina Jan. 28. The Tar Heels beat the Blue Devil women but lost to the men last fall at the GAC Invite.
“There were some individuals who did have some great performances today, but in order to compete with Virginia and UNC, it's going to take a huge team effort,” Colella said. “On the men's side it's going to be a battle. We're just looking forward to those coming weekends.”
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