Eighty-point improvements in swim meets generally coincide with vaulting up the standings.
Yet despite the massive jump from last year’s finish, the No. 18 Duke women finished sixth at the conference championship for the second consecutive year.
With six teams ranked in the top 25 and two more receiving votes, competition proved incredibly fierce at the McAuley Aquatic Center in Atlanta throughout the week-long ACC championship. After finishing last season with 642.5 points, 62.5 points behind fifth-place finisher Virginia Tech, the Blue Devils again fell short to the Hokies. This time, however, the margin was a mere 13.5 points thanks to standout relay performances and a silver medal from junior Leah Goldman in the 100-meter butterfly.
Head coach Dan Colella's team finished with 725.5 points, well ahead of Notre Dame in seventh place.
“This was certainly one of our best ACC championship performances in the last 12 years,” Colella told GoDuke.com. “We’re very, very proud of what the swimmers and divers accomplished this weekend.... it was just a great team effort. We fell slightly short of our goal of fifth place in the team standings, finishing just 13 and a half points behind Virginia Tech, but it will just keep us hungry motivated to the coming year. We’re looking forward to taking our group to NCAAs and doing even bigger and better things there.”
Although Duke eventually finished outside of the top five, the Blue Devils sat in third place following a strong first day from their relay teams and divers. Duke opened the meet by having its 200-yard medley relay secure the team’s first NCAA “A” cut of the weekend, coming in sixth at 1:37.19—a new school record. Meeting the NCAA standard ensures automatic qualification for the NCAA championship.
“The ACC has really come on big time in the last several years, and to have six, or potentially seven teams make the A cut is absolutely incredible,” Colella said after the first day of competition. “It’s always nice to get that first automatic [cut] out of the way. I know the swimmers on that relay are definitely going to find that they’re a lot more relaxed, confident, and ready to go.”
Three of the four swimmers on that initial medley relay—freshman Alyssa Marsh, sophomore Maddie Hess, and senior Maddie Rusch—captured another Duke record and “A” cut later in the week in the 200-yard freestyle relay, finishing fifth with a 1:28.51.
Records and relays aside, the most noteworthy contributors to the Blue Devils’ early success were the divers.
Three women finished inside the top-15 on the 3-meter platform, including sophomore Mackenzie Willborn, who finished a team-high ninth. In platform diving, junior MaryEllen Targonski grabbed sixth place to add to a strong Duke effort.
On the men’s side—the male divers were the only men competing this week because of the NCAA Zone B diving championships on the horizon—freshman Nathaniel Hernandez turned in the best performance of his Duke career, finishing fifth in the 1-meter event, the highest of any freshman at the meet.
Hernandez finished as the top Blue Devil diver in all three of the events, finishing eighth in the 3-meter and 15th in platform diving. The rest of the Blue Devil men will now travel to Georgia Tech in two weeks in fourth place with 113 points due to the efforts of a young men’s diving contingent.
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Duke’s female butterfly swimmers have been a crucial asset throughout the season, a trend that continued at the conference championship. Six Blue Devil swimmers returned to the finals in the 100-yard butterfly, including Goldman and freshman Alyssa Marsh in the A final.
Goldman captured Duke’s highest finish of the conference championship later that night, garnering the silver medal after a program-record 51.62 and earning a podium finish for the second time in three years.
Marsh tied for seventh to reinforce the Blue Devils’ strongest night of the meet—one on which 13 of 16 swimmers qualified for finals.
“I don’t think there has ever been a session in the years that I’ve been here where we’ve had just about everyone back,” Colella said. “Thirteen of the 16 girls made it back, and I think that really speaks to where the program is going. Not only do you have 13 girls in scoring position, but in this day and age of the ACC, where the ACC is so much more competitive.”
In the distance freestyle, junior Verity Abel and senior Brittany Friese continued to swim at a high level. Abel finished ninth in the 500 freestyle and eighth in the 1,650-yard event. Friese set a Duke record in the 200-yard freestyle with a 1:46.15, good for 10th overall.
The tandem was among the many high achievers for the Blue Devils, who now will turn their attention to the NCAA championship after almost a month off.
Several Duke competitors will have a final chance to meet NCAA qualification standards at the last-chance meet next weekend before the Blue Devil representatives in Indianapolis for NCAAs try to lower even more program records.
Update: This story was modified with a new photo and to fix an erroneous use of the phrase conference tournament. The Chronicle regrets the error.