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March 12, 2014

Tech men win fight to the finish

By: Jimmy Robertson

Getting solid performances up and down its lineup, the Tech men’s swimming and diving team held on over NC State to claim its first ACC championship and the program’s first since 2000

Tech’s swimmers, divers and coaches jumped into the pool following the final event of the 2014 ACC Men’s Championship in celebration of the program’s first ACC title.

The 2014 ACC Men’s Swimming and Diving Championship at the Greensboro Aquatic Center in Greensboro, N.C., quickly turned into a dual meet.

After the first day, the competition pitted Virginia Tech against NC State. It also pitted the mentor versus his pupil.

Tech coach Ned Skinner and NC State coach Braden Holloway know each other quite well, as Holloway served as a Tech assistant under Skinner for seven years before taking the NC State job three years ago. The two, and their teams, competed fiercely, but in the end, the elder statesman and his team won.

The Hokies used superior diving talent and overall team depth to claim their first ACC swimming and diving title, edging the Wolfpack on the final day in a meet that came down to the final few events.

“It’s interesting because Braden’s a very intense competitor, and he was intense to work with here,” Skinner said. “I know Braden and he knows me, and he knows that I’m a pretty intense competitor, too. I know how badly he wants it. I know how tirelessly he’s working to build that program. It’s a combination between respect and competitive fire and my own personal fire to win.

“He and I were actually laughing about it at the meet. It’s so interesting that we covet the same thing and both live our life for that. It brings out the best in you. I’m just glad to have come out on top.”

The Hokies, who won the school’s 17th ACC team title since joining the league for competition in 2004, scored 1,264 points compared to 1,226 points for NC State. Tech won its first swimming and diving team championship since 2000 when the school was a member of the Atlantic 10 Conference.

Tech and NC State swapped the lead multiple times over the final two days of the competition. The Wolfpack led on the last day after nine of their swimmers scored points in the 100-yard freestyle.

But the Hokies regained the lead for the final time after the 200 breaststroke. Junior Harrison Cefalo earned a bronze medal with a school-record time of 1 minute, 55.54 seconds, to lead the way. Junior Owen Burns (1:56.64) and freshman Brandon Fiala (1:57.64) took 11th and 13th, respectively, while senior Emmett Dignan clocked a career-best 1:56.96 to finish 17th – all earning valuable points under the ACC’s new scoring system that awards points to 24 swimmers in each event.

Junior Morgan Latimer took home the highest individual finish of the day in the 200 butterfly, breaking his school record with an NCAA “A” cut time of 1:42.58 to take the silver medal and put the meet out of reach. Freshman Jan Switkowski (1:44.67) and junior Nick Tremols (1:44.75) finished within moments of each other in 10th and 11th, respectively, while junior James Crabb took 19th with a time of 1:46.89.

The Hokies only needed to finish the 400 freestyle relay in the final event of the competition to claim the title, and the team of sophomore Joe Bonk, sophomore Lucas Bureau, Switkowski and Burns rolled to another school record, touching the wall in 2:54.28 to take home the bronze medal and give Tech a 38-point margin of victory.

“Relief,” Skinner said on his thoughts right after the relay team’s finish. “Relief was as big of an emotion as I felt. I’ve wanted it [an ACC title] so badly for the guys, for the team and for the program – and of course, myself and the coaches. I knew we had a good shot this year. We got ourselves in position to win it, and then it got tight. So there is happiness, but then relief that we got it done.

“You’re just so happy that it happened because, in life, things don’t always go exactly the way you want, and we all have disappointments. It was refreshing that it was my turn and Virginia Tech swimming and diving’s turn. A lot of factors played into it, and it worked out great, but capitalizing on those factors is key. Not only do you have to have good fortune, but you also have to have everything in position for that good fortune. The league is so tight that you just can’t be off. You’ve got to be at your best just to have a shot. That’s what is so remarkable about elite college athletics.”

Make no mistake about it – Tech’s title truly was a team accomplishment. The Hokies won because of their depth and not particularly because of a standout performance from an individual. In fact, only one swimmer, Switkowski, won an individual event. He took the Hokies’ lone gold by winning the 500-yard freestyle in a school-record time of 4:18.15. He became the first swimmer from a school other than Virginia or Florida State to win the event since 1996.

In the other individual events, the Hokies only had four other swimmers make the podium, including Latimer’s second-place finish in the 200 butterfly and Cefalo’s third-place finish in the 200 breastroke. Junior Jake Ores and junior Collin Higgins won bronze medals in the 1,650 freestyle and 200 backstroke, respectively, with Higgins recording an NCAA “A” cut with a school-record time of 1:41.28.

Tech, though, managed to stay even with the Wolfpack in the relay events. NC State won four of the five relays, but the Hokies recorded two silvers and three bronzes.

Latimer, Switkowski, Burns and Bureau teamed to finish second in the 800 freestyle relay, setting a new school record with a time of 6:19.69. Bonk, Latimer, C.J. Fiala and Dignan captured the silver medal in the 200 freestyle relay. The group clocked a time of 1:18.08, missing the school record by just two hundredths of a second en route to an NCAA “A” qualifying time.

Freshman Jan Switkowski won the only gold medal for the men’s team, besting the field in the 500-yard freestyle event. He set a school record in the process.

The 200 medley relay team of Latimer, Dignan, Switkowski and Bonk finished third in a time of 1:24.97, setting a school record and notching an NCAA “A” cut time. Latimer’s leadoff leg set a new Tech record, as his 50-yard backstroke time of 21.22 seconds set the school mark. In the 400 medley relay, Latimer, Tremols, freshman Brandon Fiala and Bonk combined to take third place with an NCAA “A” cut time of 3:08.26.

“We put a lot of emphasis in relays because those are double points,” Skinner said. “With an individual win, you get 32 points. With a relay win, you get 64. They’re not only critical for the points’ race, but also for momentum. You watch NC State win, and that’s tough to see. But we’re right there on them. They gain a few points, but you’re like, ‘No harm, no foul.’ NC State was fantastic in the relays, but we were rock solid.”

The difference in the meet turned out to be the diving events, which were held at the ACC Women’s Championships the week prior to the men’s conference meet, and the Hokies got great performances from their divers. Ryan Hawkins led the way for the Tech men, as the senior from Charlotte, N.C., finished third in the 3-meter event and the platform event and fifth in the 1-meter event. He closed his final ACC meet by scoring points in every single diving event at the ACC Championship all four years at Tech. He won two gold medals and three bronze medals during his career.

Hawkins got help this year. Jared Butts, a junior, finished seventh in the 3-meter event, 13th in the platform event and 16th in the 1-meter event. Logan Stevens, also a junior, finished 10th for Tech in the platform event, 12th in the 1-meter event and 13th in the 3-meter. Freshman T.J. Shinholser recorded a fifth-place finish in the platform event in his first ACC Championship and 18th in the 3-meter. In platform diving alone, the Hokies scored 83 points.

In contrast, none of NC State’s divers qualified for the finals in any event.

“Our divers did a great job, particularly on platform,” Skinner said. “All four guys were in the top 13, so that was huge points for us. It really did set a great tone.

“We said going into it that we couldn’t chunk into that insurance policy. I consider the diving points our insurance policy and try to utilize those points as little as we could. As NC State did keep chunking into it, we were able to hold them at bay enough so that when we went into the last day, we knew we had those points coming from platform diving. Diving continues to be so important to this program, and they share equally in this title.”

Tech’s depth played as big of a role. League officials changed the scoring format for this year’s meet because of the additions of Notre Dame, Pittsburgh, and next year, Louisville, and that change rewarded teams that placed a lot of swimmers into the finals of each event.

The Hokies picked up a lot of finishes between fourth and 15th. Switkowski finished fourth in the 200 freestyle with a school-record time of 1:34.26, and Bureau claimed eighth place in the same event, while Burns finished 11th. Sophomore Michal Szuba (4:21.14) and Ores (4:21.69) scored in the 500 freestyle, taking fifth and sixth, respectively. Brandon Fiala claimed fifth in the 200 IM and Burns took eighth. Freshman Robert Owen finished in sixth in the 400 IM, with freshman Zach Switzer coming in 12th. Latimer and Tremols claimed fifth and sixth, respectively in the 100 butterfly, and Latimer and Higgins finished sixth and eighth, respectively, in the 100 backstroke.

“I’ve always felt that we needed to have a total program,” Skinner said. “That’s how I see it. We had success in every event and we scored points in every event. We didn’t get shut out in any event. We had 60 scoring opportunities, and we converted on 56 of those. Only four guys didn’t score in one of their events. We really worked on each group to take ownership in their opportunity to perform.”

In the women’s competition, Kaylea Arnett recorded two victories to lead the Tech women’s team to a fifth-place finish at the ACC Women’s Swimming and Diving Championship held Feb. 20-22 in Greensboro. Tech amassed 914.5 points and finished 36.5 points behind fourth-place NC State. Virginia won the event with 1,433 points.

“I’m pleased,” Skinner said of the women. “More than 50 percent of our team is new. We had a lot of freshmen. We were in position to have a great shot at third. Of course, we wanted to be in the upper echelon, but I think the morale and spirit of the team is high, and I’m proud of them.”

Arnett, a junior from Spring, Texas, won the ACC’s Most Valuable Diver Award for the third time, becoming just the third ACC student-athlete to do that. She won the 1-meter and 3-meter events, and she finished third in the platform event. She broke her own school records in the 1- and 3-meter events.

Arnett wasn’t the only Tech diver to fare well. Kelli Stockton, a junior from Fairfax, Va., recorded fifth-place finishes in both the 1-meter and the platform events. Also, Ashley Buchter, a freshman from East Berlin, Pa., placed seventh in the platform event in her first ACC Championship.

In the swimming events, Tech also got a nice meet from sophomore Weronika Paluszek, who finished third in both the 100 and 200 breaststroke events, setting school records in both. She broke her own school record in the 100 breaststroke with a time of 59.95 seconds that earned her the bronze medal and missed an NCAA “A” cut by less than a second. She snapped her own school record in the 200 breaststroke by recording an NCAA “A” cut time of 2:07.81.

Paluszek swam a leg on the 400 medley relay team that finished third at the meet. She, sophomore Holly Harper, freshman Maggie Gruber and senior Katarina Filova teamed to finish the event in a time of 3:35.45, which is an NCAA “B” cut time.

Paluszek, from Wroclaw, Poland, tallied 54 individual points between her two bronze medals and swimming the second leg of the third-place 400 medley relay team.

Harper, a native of Charlottesville, Va., swam well, too. She finished sixth in the 200 backstroke and eighth in the 200 individual medley, setting a school record (1:58.99 in the preliminaries).

Freshman Fiona Donnelly from Belper, England, and Gruber, a native of Gibsonia, Pa., added to the Hokies’ point total. Donnelly recorded a seventh-place finish in the 400 IM, clocking an NCAA “B” time of 4:14.99. Gruber followed that with a time of 53.32 seconds in the 100 butterfly that earned her sixth place.

“We feel like there are a lot of positives we can take from this,” Skinner said of the women’s team’s performance. “We can build on this and get back to the upper echelon. You don’t want to go from second [last year’s finish] to fifth, but we feel like we have what it takes to get back in the hunt.”

Select members of the men’s and women’s swimming and diving teams now wait to see if their times are good enough for invitations to the upcoming NCAA Championships. The Women’s NCAA Championships will be held March 20-22 in Minneapolis, Minn., while the Men’s NCAA Championships will be held March 27-29 in Austin, Texas.