With a squad returning some of last year’s brightest talents, the Blue Devils looked to make a statement in the early stages of the season.
And even when faced with some of the nation’s top competition, Duke made sure it was heard loud and clear.
The Blue Devils wrapped up their action for the fall semester with the Tennessee Invitational in Knoxville, Tenn., at the Volunteers’ Allan Jones Aquatic Center. Competing from Thursday to Saturday, Duke’s women’s team took second of nine teams behind only No. 7 Tennessee with 807 points, led by senior Isabella Paez’s first-place finish in the 200-yard butterfly.
The men’s team took fourth of six teams with 492 points. Despite facing the Volunteers and No. 21 North Carolina on the women’s side and No. 15 Tennessee and No. 22 North Carolina on the men’s side, the Blue Devils delivered strong performances across the board.
“One of our goals was to be [consistent],” Duke head coach Dan Colella said. “A lot of times in these multi-day events you have some ups and downs, and we wanted to work on being consistent, and its been the most consistent three-day invitational championship meet we’ve had in quite some time.”
Colella’s team got off to a bit of a slow start in the races on the first day of competition, but made up for it in diving.
In the opening 200-yard freestyle relays, the Blue Devils struggled to find a way past the home team. The women’s A-relay team of sophomore Alyssa Marsh, senior Leah Goldman and juniors Hunter Aitchison and Maddie Hess took third at 1:30.03 behind the Volunteers at 1:29.07 and the Tar Heels with a time of 1:28.52. Although Marsh and Goldman put Duke in a strong position to overtake Tennessee, the Volunteers’ Stanzi Moseley and Erika Brown powered through the last half of the relay to keep the Blue Devils at bay.
The Duke men’s A-relay team of sophomore Miles Williams, juniors Sean Tate and Max St. George and senior Alex Peña suffered a similar fate as the women’s team, falling into fourth at 1:19.63 behind Pennsylvania at 1:18.69, Tennessee in second at 1:17.68 and Denver at the front of the pack with a time of 1:17.66. Williams gave the Blue Devils a slight lead early on, but strong splits from the leading teams denied Duke a chance to contest at the finish.
The only other Blue Devils to make it to the top three for the rest of the day were Goldman taking third in the 200-yard individual medley with a time of 1:57.72 and senior Verity Abel taking third in the 500-yard freestyle at 4:43.53. However, Duke’s diving squad managed to turn heads despite the rest of the teams’ struggles. Junior Lizzie Fitzpatrick took second in the one-meter diving event with a score of 267.20, and junior Evan Moretti placed second with a score of 382.35 on the three-meter board for the men.
On day two, Duke’s diving squad continued to impress while the Blue Devils’ racing teams began to pick up steam. Goldman took second in the 100-yard butterfly behind the Volunteers’ Erika Brown, and junior Judd Howard claimed third in the men’s 100-yard breaststroke with a time of 53.95. St. George—who reached the 50-meter backstroke finals in the 2017 Phillips 66 National Championship—took second in the 100-yard backstroke with a time of 46.73, barely holding off the Volunteers’ Matthew Garcia.
The Blue Devils found a big break in the 800-yard freestyle relay. The women’s A-squad of Marsh, Goldman, sophomore Kylie Jordan and Abel took a convincing second with a time of 7:12.62. Although they could never catch up to the Volunteers—who torched the competition with a final time of 7:07.11—the Blue Devils refused to let Denver catch up to them, keeping the Pioneers behind in all legs of the race.
The men’s A-squad of Tate, sophomore Sheldon Boboff, senior Nick Bigot and Williams held down third with a time of 6:34.69 in the 800-yard freestyle relay behind Tennessee in first and Denver in second. Initially trailing North Carolina—who took fourth in the race—Williams made up more than three seconds on the final leg to overtake the Tar Heels by less than half a second.
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In the deep end, junior Mackenzie Wilborn and freshman Teddy Zeng continued Duke’s standard of success on the diving boards. Wilborn took second in three-meter diving with 297.55 points, and Zeng took second on the one-meter with 345.75 points.
“[The divers] were incredibly consistent,” Colella said. “They finished in the same spots. I talked with [head diving coach] Nunzio [Esposto] and he was very pleased with their performances. All in all, it’s been a great trip to Knoxville and I’m glad we came.”
On the final day of competition, the Blue Devils put up their strongest performances of the weekend.
On the women’s side, Abel opened with a second place, 16:18.96 finish in the 1,650-yard freestyle with junior Maddie Hess following up with a third-place 1:55.46 finish in the 200-yard backstroke. Marsh took third in the 100-yard freestyle with a time of 48.63. Senior Isabella Paez, who initially struggled throughout the day to break the top-10 in other events, took the 200-yard butterfly title with a convincing 1:56.73.
Although Tennessee’s Meghan Small led Paez in the first 50-yards, the Medley, Fla., native upped the pressure for the rest of the race and never looked back. Concluding the action for the women’s team, the A-squad of Marsh, Hess, Aitchison and Goldman put up a time of 3:16.63 to take third in the 400-yard freestyle relay.
On the men’s side, Howard secured third in the 200-yard breaststroke with a time of 1:57.73 before the A-relay squad of Williams, Boboff, Tate and St. George finished in fifth at 2:56.61 in the 400-yard freestyle relay.
“Every session, we need to build on the previous,” Colella said. “I’m very proud of these young men and women and how they finished it off tonight. Everyone is in really great spirits and really proud of their teammates and how they performed. It’s something where you work hard and reap the benefits, it’s just going to really motivate [the team] for the second half of the season.”
The diving squad finished strong yet again, with two Duke divers taking second in platform diving. Wilborn finished with 224.25 points to lead the women’s squad, and sophomore Nathaniel Hernandez led the men’s team with 355.70 points.
The Blue Devils have some time off before their next meet, when they will take on Queens University of Charlotte Jan. 12.
“To be able to come off a meet like this with the kind of performances we had—even for those who didn’t achieve the times they were hoping for—I think there was a lot to be learned from the experience,” Colella said. “It’s just something this year where the culture has been different—a lot more competitive—and people are excited about the second half of the season and see what we can do in the conference.”