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Duke swimming and diving women aiming for elusive top-5 finish at ACC championship

<p>The Blue Devils have some of the ACC's top competitors in several individual events and will look to put together enough standout performances for one of their best conference championship finishes ever.&nbsp;</p>

The Blue Devils have some of the ACC's top competitors in several individual events and will look to put together enough standout performances for one of their best conference championship finishes ever. 

After coming up just shy of a coveted top-five finish at last year's ACC championship, the Blue Devils have their eye on another program milestone in Atlanta just a few weeks removed from their first-ever win against North Carolina.

The No. 18 Duke women and men's diving team will compete at the ACC championship at the Georgia Tech Aquatic Center Monday through Thursday as the women are hoping to build on last year's sixth-place finish and live up to their billing as the third-highest ranked conference team. But in order to do that, the Blue Devils will have to show their mettle against No. 7 N.C. State, No. 8 Virginia, the No. 23 Tar Heels and No. 24 Notre Dame. Virginia Tech also received votes in the latest poll, so in many events, the tiniest of margins could determine Duke's success. 

"They’ve proven to themselves that they can compete at the highest level, and the ACC is one of the best conferences in the country and they’re going to be facing some of the best," Blue Devil head coach Dan Colella said. "But we [also] have some of the best. We’re excited to see them perform this week."

Duke has gotten a boost from its diving team all season and will look to start strong at the conference championship, with the only men competing this week being male divers a full two weeks before the men's swimming competition to avoid conflicting with NCAA Zone B diving championships in early March. 

The Blue Devil diving team has not competed since Jan. 28 against North Carolina, but posted strong showings against the Tar Heels with sophomore Evan Moretti posting the second-highest Duke score ever in the 1-meter event and senior Nathaniel Hernandez topping the 3-meter field. On the women's side, senior Kirby Quinn will look to build off her season-best mark in platform diving from the meet against the Tar Heels. 

"We’re looking forward to them contributing in a big way. They have all season. The performances that they’ve put up—especially in the big ACC meets against Virginia and UNC—these competitions bring out the best in people like Evan Moretti and folks like that," Colella said. "It’s going to take everybody. They’re definitely excited and ready to go."

In the swimming events, the Blue Devils will look to lean on stalwarts Leah Goldman, Verity Abel and Alyssa Marsh as well as their standout relay teams to rack up the points needed for a top-five finish.

A junior, Goldman holds program records in the 100- and 200-meter individual medley as well as the 100-meter butterfly. She won the 200-meter freestyle against North Carolina, and like Abel and Marsh is a key contributor on the Duke relay teams. 

Abel has been giving her team a boost in the distance freestyle events all season in her third year in Durham, and even as a freshman Marsh has stepped into a key role as part of a deep Blue Devil butterfly contingent.

Duke hopes the trio, along with returning standouts like senior freestyler Maddie Rusch, sophomore Maddie Hess and senior Ashleigh Shanley, can punch tickets to the NCAA championship and continue making program history this week.

"We would love to see a whole slew of them break out and do phenomenal things. We’ve had a number of them doing great things all season," Colella said. "This is their focus. It’s not the end of the journey, but our hope is to get as many of them qualified this week as possible."

The Blue Devils will look to get off to a strong start with two of their best relays Monday afternoon—the 200-yard individual medley and the 800-yard freestyle. Duke's 800-yard freestyle relay team of Abel, sophomore Hunter Aitchison, Goldman and senior Brittany Friese set a program record earlier this season and hopes to start a grueling four days in Atlanta on a high note.

With the women's NCAA championship not slated until March 15, the Blue Devils are once again trying to peak at the right time in the next month.

"We absolutely are positioned. Our goal every year is to improve, take it a little bit higher and compete. We want to be contenders in the ACC and this group— we’ve got some great veterans and some really good youth," Colella said. "It’s definitely a year where we can see some improvements on what we did last year and be able to move up a few spots."

Alex Sanfilippo contributed reporting. 

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