July 31, 2013
EDITOR’S NOTE: During the month of July, UND.com and Fighting Irish Digital Media has featured a multimedia series entitled “Irish in the ACC,” giving Notre Dame fans a sneak peek at some of what they can expect in the coming days, weeks and years as a member of the ACC through the eyes of each of the various Fighting Irish sports that will compete in the conference. Today, we wrap up this month-long series with a look at the Notre Dame men’s and women’s swimming & diving programs, which were among the most successful in the school’s BIG EAST era and will aim for similar accolades in the ACC.
by Russell Dorn and Tony Jones (Athletic Media Relations Assistants)
The University of Notre Dame men’s and women’s swimming and diving programs enter the Atlantic Coast Conference with much enthusiasm after widely dominating the league during the past 18 years. The Irish women claimed 14 league titles, while the men’s team brought home six since 2005. Now with the move to the ACC, the two Notre Dame programs look to make a splash in a new league while continuing their rise up the national ladder at the year-end NCAA Championships.
MEN’S SWIMMING & DIVING
With its transition to the ACC set to officially commence this fall, in retrospect, the Notre Dame men’s swimming and diving program grew exponentially during its 18-year affiliation with the BIG EAST Conference.
After competing as an independent from its inception in 1958 until 1983, legendary head coach Dennis Stark’s squads amassed 160 dual meet victories, including a then program record 11 wins during the 1974-75 campaign. The Irish made their first move to conference competition during the 1983-84 season, and Notre Dame’s affiliation with the Midwestern Collegiate Conference (now known as the Horizon League) also immediately elevated the Irish to another level of success.
In 12 seasons (1983-1995) as an MCC member, the Irish were six-time conference champions, winning the league crown outright each year from 1987-92. Notre Dame also added four runner-up trophies to its league championship collection in the MCC. All six MCC Championships were won during the tenure of current head coach Tim Welsh, who assumed the post from Stark prior to the 1985-86 season.
Along with their success at the year-end conference meet, the Irish won 10 or more regular season dual meets six different times during their MCC run, setting what remains the program standard for wins in a single season with matching 13-3 marks in 1987-88 and 1990-91. Welsh registered a won-loss record of 93-50 (.650) in his first 10 seasons at Notre Dame, and led the program through the second conference affiliation change in its 37-year history when the Irish moved to the BIG EAST in 1995.
Initially, the move to the BIG EAST did not produce the plentiful returns that Notre Dame had enjoyed for the previous decade plus in the MCC. In fact, the Irish, who never finished outside of the top-three finishers at the year-end MCC Championship, did not break into the top three of the BIG EAST until their fourth season in the league, logging runner-up results in 1998-99 and 1999-00.
“The BIG EAST, when we joined, was a huge challenge for Notre Dame, especially in swimming,” Welsh said. “We were excited to go, the conference has always taken great care of us, and the challenges were huge.”
Everything changed for Notre Dame during the 2004-05 season. The Irish, ranked as high as 22nd in the College Swimming Coaches Association of America (CSCAA) poll, scored a then meet record 902.5 points to win the 2005 BIG EAST Championship. Notre Dame would also bring home the conference hardware in 2006, 2008, 2009, 2012 and 2013 (most recently after shattering its own meet record with 991 points), never finishing outside of the top two in its final 10 seasons in the BIG EAST.
“We have very fond memories of watching our program grow as members of the BIG EAST Conference,” Welsh said. “It’s been very good for us.”
The page now turns to the new journey into the ACC. Notre Dame returns four honorable All-Americans who scored points at the 2013 NCAA Championship, Frank Dyer (800 free relay), Kevin Hughes (800 free relay), Zach Stephens (200 breast) and John Williamson (200 fly). The Irish sent a school-record nine student-athletes to compete in last season’s NCAA meet, surpassing the program’s previous high watermark of two in 2012. Seven of the 10 returning ACC swimming affiliates competed at the NCAAs in 2013, with all seven teams logging top-30 finishes at the IUPUI Natatorium in Indianapolis.
“The move for us is very exciting. This is another challenge,” Welsh said. “We will not come in at the top of the ACC, that’s good for us. We’ll look forward to the challenge and to the opportunities. There are great schools, great swimmers, great coaches, and good facilities in the ACC. It’s just a great move for us.”
Based on the organization of the swimming members in the BIG EAST, Notre Dame never followed a set conference schedule during the regular season. The Irish would, however, schedule dual meets and participate in invitational events against league competition, something that will likely continue in the ACC. One thing that remains familiar on the schedule front is the year-end conference championship meet, as the ACC Championship itself has a rich history that dates back to 1962.
Welsh and his coaching staff are acutely aware of the caliber of competition that awaits the Irish as Notre Dame settles into its new home.
“The teams you would expect, North Carolina has been an ACC champion many times and Virginia has been an ACC champion many times,” Welsh said. “Once upon a time, we were able to train at North Carolina during the (holiday) breaks, so we’ve been to their facility. Georgia Tech has been a rising power, and they have one of the most elite facilities in the United States. We look forward to a chance to be there. Florida State, they are good in everything. It’s just a really solid conference.”
North Carolina State has won a conference-high 24 ACC championships, including 21 outright league titles. Surprisingly, the Wolfpack has been shut out at the conference meet since 1992, earning one runner-up finish in that span (1996). North Carolina is second on the all-time team ACC champion list with 17 conference titles, including 13 outright.
Since 1999, Virginia has emerged as the powerhouse team of the ACC, winning 14 of 15 official conference championship meets contested. Longtime Cavalier head coach Mark Bernardino, who led Virginia to 27 combined men’s and women’s ACC Championship triumphs over the past 35 seasons, announced his retirement earlier this summer.
Notre Dame’s program has its own unique tie to ACC swimming, as associate head coach Matt Tallman joined the Irish in the fall of 2001 after spending the previous season at Maryland as an assistant on head coach Jim Wenhold’s staff. During his one season in College Park, Tallman helped lead the Terrapin women’s team to an 8-2 dual meet record and a fourth-place finish at the ACC Championship, sending a school record number of qualifiers to compete at the 2001 NCAA Championship in the process. Maryland dissolved both its men’s and women’s swimming programs following the 2011-12 academic year due to athletic expense cuts.
WOMEN’S SWIMMING & DIVING
After dominating the BIG EAST for almost two decades, the Notre Dame women’s swimming and diving team is looking forward to the new challenge that the ACC will bring. Owners of 14 titles in a row from 1997-2010, the Irish set a BIG EAST record for most consecutive titles in any sport. The other four years Notre Dame finished second three times and third once.
Nationally, the Irish have been a steady contributor on the sport’s highest level as they have sent at least one individual to the NCAA Championships in all but one year since 1990, including 11 top-30 team finishes. Notre Dame is coming off back-to-back top-25 finishes in 2012 and 2013, including placing a program-best 16th at the most recent NCAA Championships back in March.
Leading the charge for the Irish entering 2014 are a pair of nationally elite swimmers in senior Kelly Ryan and junior Emma Reaney. Ryan has earned one All-America scroll and two honorable mention All-America citations during the past two years, while Reaney has racked up two All-America and five honorable mention All-America performances in just two seasons at Notre Dame.
Going into 2014, Reaney ranks first in the ACC in the 100 and 200 breast and 200 IM and second in the 400 IM, while Ryan places second in the 200 back.
Taking Notre Dame into the ACC is head coach Brian Barnes, who enters his sixth season at the helm of the Irish in 2014. Under Barnes, the Irish have become a more consistent player on the national stage as they have scored points at four of the five NCAA Championships, including the program-best finish in 2013. In BIG EAST action Notre Dame won two titles and finished second three times under the Osceola, Ind., native.
“It’s a strong conference for us particularly at the top end,” said Barnes. “Virginia and North Carolina are perennially in the top-10 or top-15 at the national level. The conference is also coached very well. We are excited to join a larger conference with a deeper league meet and I think it can only help Notre Dame.”
The Irish are joining a league that has an interesting conference history. A series of runs is the best way to describe the championship meet, as teams like to win multiple titles in a row once they win their first one. After N.C. State won the first two titles in 1979 and 1980, North Carolina won six in a row from 1981-86. After that Clemson won three in a row (1987-89), UNC claimed six in a row (1991-96), Virginia took two in 1998 and 1999, the Tar Heels won three more from 2000-02, the Cavaliers claimed a pair in 2003 and 2004 and have owned the league in recent years, winning the last six in a row starting in 2008. Only five times since the first league championship in 1979 has a team not won more than one title in a row. Overall, North Carolina has 16 crowns and Virginia has 11.
Nationally, the ACC has been steady but not elite, earning 16 top-10 finishes and 38 top-15 showings since 1982. North Carolina placed third in 1982, but the last top-10 finish was Virginia in 2010 (ninth). UNC led the way in 2013 with a 12th-place showing, just four spots ahead of the Irish.
Over the years student-athletes have taken home 23 individual titles, led by eight from UNC’s Sue Walsh (1982-84). The latest was the Tar Heels’ Stephanie Peacock, who took the 1,650 free crown in 2012. Overall, UNC has won 11 of the 23 titles.
— ND —