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October 8, 2013

Taking the Next Step

By: Marc Mullen

The Tech men’s and women’s swimming and diving teams finished second at the ACC Championships a year ago and have their sights set on bigger goals for the 2013-14 season

Emmett Dignan’s ability in the breaststroke helped the men’s team win the 400 medley relay last season, and the senior should be a leader again for the Hokies this season.

It was more than a decade ago – and two leagues ago – when both the Virginia Tech men’s and women’s swimming and diving teams ended the league championship meet with as high a team finish as the Hokies accomplished at the 2013 ACC Championships.

Both squads placed second. For the men, it marked their second straight second-place finish at the league’s meet, and for the women, it was their best finish ever at the ACC Championships. Both programs then swam on to top-25 finishes at the NCAA Championships for the second straight year.

The league finish was the best combined since the teams both took home the team trophies at the 2000 Atlantic 10 Conference meet, and the NCAA finishes marked the first time both accomplished top-25 finishes in back-to-back years in school history.

However, the graduations of many on both rosters, including several All-Americans, the addition of two new teams into the ACC and a change in the scoring system at the league meet will test the 2013-14 Hokies as both teams attempt to break through and claim that first ACC team title.

“We graduated 18 seniors from last year’s teams, so that has been a real challenge for us, but fortunately, we have a strong group of freshmen and transfers who have come in,” Virginia Tech swimming and diving head coach Ned Skinner said. “We really feel optimistic about the year knowing that it’s just a lot of new faces, a lot of newness within the framework of our program. But we return a strong nucleus of ACC and NCAA performers, and we brought in a highly ranked recruiting class. We like to think that we are going to be every bit as strong.”

What made the Hokies so successful last season was their depth and versatility. On the men’s side, they took second despite winning just one ACC title – ironically, in an event that demands versatility, the 400-medley relay.

Those attributes need to be on full display when it comes to swimming at championships because [for those unfamiliar] a team is only allowed to take 18 student-athletes to either the league or the national meet. According to Skinner, the ACC will begin scoring up to 24 places at the championships for the first time, so depth and versatility are key.

“Interestingly, [with the rule] divers are only counted as a half, so there is a little strategy there,” Skinner said. “If you take two divers, that means you can take 17 swimmers. Now, what we’ve done the last few years, we’ve taken four divers, so that means we can only take 16 swimmers. Each school has to decide on their own how to handle that. Now that they are scoring 24 places at the league meet, it does change the strategy a little bit.

“The depth of a program is very important in the ACC. We add Pittsburgh and Notre Dame, and next year, we add Louisville, so the conference is going to actually be a little thicker. So depth will be important, and you’re going to need to swim really, really fast to score points.

“That’s why having range in your events is important. A guy who swims just one event really well may not be as strong a contender to make our conference team as opposed to someone who can swim three events really well because you are allowed to swim up to three individual events in our sport.”

Seniors Emmett Dignan, Nick Tremols and Ryan Hawkins exemplify that versatility.

Dignan was a member of the school-record setting 200 freestyle and 400 medley relay teams, the latter of which won gold at the ACC meet. The two teams then earned honorable-mention All-America honors at the national meet. Dignan has also clocked the second-fastest 200 breaststroke time ever at the school and the third-fastest 100 breaststroke.

Tremols was a member of the school-record setting 800 freestyle relay team, but has turned in (at the school) the third-fastest 100 butterfly and 200 IM times and the fourth-fastest 200 butterfly time.

Hawkins is a diver who not only was an Academic All-American, but also a two-time All-American, earning the honors in the 3-meter and platform events last year. For good measure, he added an honorable mention All-America nod in the 1-meter event.

“Ryan Hawkins actually won most valuable performer for the Hokies last year because he went to the NCAAs and was in the top eight in two events and had an incredible season,” Skinner said. “He’s just a great story because he is one of the very few student-athletes who is studying architecture. So he is in a very interesting situation where he spends all day in the studio, and he can’t even practice until the evening. And hats off to Ron Piemonte, our head diving coach, who stays after. He coaches the entire college team and then stays yet another two hours and coaches Ryan.”

Other notable swimmers on the men’s side include senior Nathan Hoisington, juniors Owen Burns, Harrison Cefalo and Collin Higgins, and sophomores Michal Szuba and Joe Bonk. Divers to keep an eye on are senior John Trope, junior Kyle Butts and sophomore Logan Stevens, and don’t count out a familiar name, T.J. Shinholser.

“There are three Shinholsers,” Skinner said. “There is Logan, one of the greatest student-athletes ever for Virginia Tech in any sport. Colby is a diver at UVa, and then T.J., who is a freshman here at Virginia Tech and has quickly emerged in the sport. We think he will be a great one.

“But we feel that we have good balance in our classes, and then if these freshmen step up like we feel they might, we think we can have some really good balance across the board. That’s a reason why Virginia Tech has been able to be a runner-up a few years in a row because we maximize how many chances we can convert on at the ACC Championships.”

On the women’s side, the Hokies will acknowledge that winning ACC event titles is also a very manageable way to place second at the league meet, as the team captured five events at last season’s meet, tied for the most by Tech since 2000. Two of those were relays, and of the medley variety (200 and 400).

Skinner certainly recognizes the importance of relay teams, particularly at the championship meets, as he places them in high regards when choosing his ACC squad.

“We certainly have identified diving as a very important area,” he said. “From there, my philosophy is to have a well-balanced swim program, which is important, and you have to be great on relays because, in swimming, relays are double [points], and so we know how important that is. We won both medley relays on the women and the men. In four of the five relays, we were in the top three, so that’s where you’ve got to take your hits.”

Katarina Filova placed in the top 11 in three different freestyle events at the ACC Championships a year ago and will be counted on to help the Hokies this season.

The women’s team lost the great Heather Savage, but features a great balance from class to class as Katarina Filova, Brittany Boone and Rachel Sepanski lead the senior class, and three divers – Kaylea Arnett, Kelli Stockton and Katie Bean – highlight the juniors.

“Just like with the men, we have a history of taking four divers to the ACCs the last several years, led by Kaylea, who is a couple-time ACC Most Valuable Diver and a multiple-time All-American,” Skinner said. “She’s followed by Kelli Stockton, who has scored and made the finals at ACCs, and is an improving diver, and Katie Bean, who transferred in from UMBC, and was a conference champion (1-meter in the America East Conference).

“We have a couple newcomers in Ashley Buchter, who was a junior national finalist and is coming off a great summer, and we have the coach’s daughter, Leah Piemonte, who is a great story. She was a state champion several times over. So on the women’s side, we feel we are going to have four strong divers at the ACC Championships, which is so valuable in the team race and again why we finished second last year. We feel diving had a significant part in that.”

Also coming through for the Hokies last year was a strong class of freshmen, including Gabrielle Bishop, Holly Harper, Weronika Paluszek and Mackenzie Stewart. Skinner is also really high on the incoming freshmen.

“I think some of these sophomores will play an integral part for us,” Skinner said. “Weronika Paluszek is a returning ACC champion in the breaststroke. Holly Harper is one of the few women we’ve ever had to score in all three individual events at ACCs as a freshman [the 100 backstroke, the 200 backstroke and the 200 IM], and Mackenzie Stewart and Gabrielle Bishop all had good summers. So that sophomore class is a real important class for us.

“Interestingly, the group of freshmen who are at Virginia Tech right now are ranked 10th in the country as a recruiting class. We are proud of that. The class is led by Fiona Donnelly, who’s from Scotland, and Maggie Gruber from Pennsylvania. She was one of the top recruits in the country. They are all really looking good in the preseason. We see quite a few of these freshmen being players, not only at the ACC level, but at the NCAA level as well.”

With the added teams and the new point system, it could be a challenge for the Tech coaches to plug in the right mix of swimmers and divers to maximize their point haul. However, with the depth and versatility the Hokies have developed over the years, they might be as poised as any team to win a title.