The Fghting Irish men's swimming and diving team - pictured here at the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, Colo. - gathered this evening for their annual banquet.

Irish Men's Swimming Gathers For a Night of Celebration and Remembrance

April 22, 2015

If you have ever played on a team at any point in your life, inevitably, you have sat through an end of the year team banquet. Depending on what level you and your teammates competed at — recreational, travel, grade school high school or college — these banquets by and large serve simply as a time of celebration for the parents to see their child get a trophy.

Not so at the University of Notre Dame men’s swimming and diving end of year banquet.

The night was filled with applause, laughs, memories, tears, and a few moments of silence as first year head coach Matt Tallman celebrated the accomplishments of his team in the 2014-15 season and also reflected on those no longer present in the room. The banquet was as much a celebration of one season of competition as it was a tribute to those from the past that helped create and shape the program of today.

The Awards
After a dinner buffet that featured beef brisket, sautéed kale, mashed potatoes, pesto-crusted salmon with a lemon beurre blanc sauce and a vegetable gnocchi gratin (in addition to Bailey’s chocolate cake for dessert), Coach Tallman and various members of the staff presented the team awards. To perhaps no one’s surprise, the Knute Rockne Scholar-Athlete Award went to senior butterflier Broderick Kelley. Kelley, who swam sparingly in his senior season, is a civil engineering major with a 3.65 GPA. He has participated throughout the year with the NDSEED program, perhaps devoting as much time to his studies as he has swimming in his four years at Notre Dame. Another award that surprised no one was when Zachary Stephens was named Team MVP. Stephens, a three-time NCAA qualifier, set school records in the 200 IM, 100 Breast and 200 Breast during his final season for the Irish, and became the first swimmer in program history to earn multiple All-America scrolls in one NCAA meet at the 2015 Championship meet.

Assistant Coach Tim Lane and head diving coach Caiming Xie presented the Most Improved Swimmer and Diver Awards, with sophomores Reed Fujan winning the swimming award and James Lichtenstein the diving award. Fujan was reflective of the award, saying “Those of you that remember my freshman season, I struggled. But to have the opportunity to swim at ACCs and NCAAs this year, this is proof that hard work can pay off. And I want to thank everyone that chose me for this award.”

Strength and conditioning coach Kaitlin Sweeney announced the Weight Room Warrior awards — presented to the swimmer and diver who best show consistent improvement and unmatched effort and enthusiasm for the weight room for the betterment of himself and his teammates — to swimmer Kevin Bradley and diver Ted Wagner. Both winners joked that they didn’t deserve the award because “I can’t squat 200 yet.”

The Saco de Toro Award — the winner of which is nominated by the team and selected by the coaches — went to “a person whose outstanding performance was defined by extraordinary `courage’ and `guts’.” The 2015 winner not only punched his ticket to the NCAA Championship, but also swam a school record and personal best time merely one week after the ACC Championship meet. Sophomore Tom Anderson won the award on the merit of his 3:43.03 time in the 400 IM at the NCAA Last Chance Meet on March 8.

The Beeler-Hipp Award, named for Meghan Beeler and Colleen Hipp, was presented by seniors Matthew DeBlasio, John Nappi and Patrick Murphy to freshman Justin Plaschka. Plaschka, who was one of three freshmen to swim at the ACC Championship meet, is one of many young faces that will power the Irish freestyle corps for years to come.

With no team captains in 2014-15, the Patrick Reilly McManus Captains’ Award winner was chosen by the coaches to be a “retrospective captain”: 2013 honoree Patrick Murphy was selected by the coaches based on his positive attitude and constant dedication to the team in 2015. Says Murphy, “I won this award as a sophomore, but to win it again this year means so much more to me. Thank you, thank you for choosing me to receive this award, it means a lot.”

Dr. Charles Blanchard was on hand to bestow his namesake award to the swimmer or diver “who by performance, inspiration and leadership, has exemplified the personal qualities of Charles Blanchard.” Fujan was this year’s award honoree, and after presenting the award Dr. Blanchard remained at the podium to remember Dennis Stark and the impact he had on the program.

The Memories — And a Reflection on the Year
When one thinks of Notre Dame Swimming, inevitably, one thinks of Dennis Stark. And this only makes sense, as Stark founded first the club team and then went on to coach the men’s and women’s varsity teams during his 27-year tenure at the University.

When one thinks of the University of Notre Dame, the memory of Father Theodore Hesburgh “Fr. Ted” comes to the forefront of one’s brain. And why shouldn’t he? Who else in the modern era of collegiate athletics has so defined both a university and it’s athletic department by their actions?

And finally, when someone looks back on their life, that someone always has a mentor; someone that so influenced both their philosophy on life and their life as a whole, it is no wonder they act the way they do. For head coach Matt Tallman, that mentor was his college head coach, who passed away in November.

“Dr. Blanchard mentioned Coach Stark, and his importance in bringing him [Blanchard] here to Notre Dame,” Tallman mused. “And what I do today, is pretty much based upon what my college coach did — and if I had grass in my yard right now we’d be having the banquet at my house, because that’s how he always did it for us. As a lot of you know, my coach passed away in November — everything I try to do for you guys is in line with what he did for me. Fr. Hesburgh’s passing — as I think all of you know, he played a role in my life as he married my parents at the Basilica — both he and Dennis Stark played a role for all of us. Coach Stark started this program with the support of Fr. Hesburgh, and their passing has meant a lot to us all. Their loss has made me think about a lot of things lately.”

“This season was full of a lot of changes. Obviously the past few years there have been a lot of changes, and moving forward there will be still more changes too. To come off the year we had last season, with Tim [Welsh] finishing his career with the men’s program, and setting 21 school records in 18 events- to follow that up with nine more records in seven events, I thought that made this a great year,” stated Tallman.

“We matched the highest number of All-American certificates that we’ve ever had at NCAAs this season; Zach[ary Stephens] became the first guy to score in more than one event — you know Frank [Dyer] had multiple certificates, but Zach became the first guy to score in different events. Perhaps our biggest change was the change in conferences — our seniors this year came in at a time when we were fairly dominant in the BIG EAST, and then it was eye-opening last year when we went to the ACC meet. We went in not knowing what to expect — perhaps hoping for a little more — but we still swam really well to set all those records. And to establish the records that we did this year, to go into that meet with your chest out and feeling more confident, what a difference a year made for us. We went in and beat two schools that beat us last year, and moved up one place on the board. To beat Florida State and Virginia, two teams that in my time coaching have always been well-respected programs, that was a great move on our part. And we’ll continue to pick off one or two schools in the coming year too; our program is headed in the right direction, and we’ve got a great class coming in,” reflected Tallman.

“This spring has been tremendous,” continued Tallman. “Tim and Chris and I have talked countless times on the pool deck about the attendance from the guys that are coming back next year, and how we really couldn’t have asked for more. The work ethic has been great, and the improvements we’re seeing — guys wanting to do more — that makes us look forward to what’s coming in the summer. The foundation that is being laid right now while you’re still in school should be a solid base for the summer. It’s also great to see the number of guys that are staying for the summer, and everything combined together is just a positive step.”

Tallman concluded by saying “Enough of the sad stuff — I can’t reiterate how proud I am of this team and the work they’ve put in, and our successes this season. For the seniors that are going on to graduate school and the jobs that you have waiting, we want you to stay involved with the program and keep in touch moving forward. Your class has been absolutely vital to us moving in the right direction. Coming in, you were the highest ranked class we ever had, and you helped build on the idea that every class coming in should be better than the classes before them.”

The End… Or the Beginning?
Rare is the moment when a coach tears up in front of his team, but tonight, Matt Tallman’s Irish eyes weren’t the only ones to hold a certain glimmer. As the 35-man roster of the 2014-15 team made their way to the elevators, a sense of comraderie and excitement encircled everyone in Club Naimoli. The class of 2015 gave hugs to their teammates, coaches and classmates, while those headed to study hall hi-fived each other on their way out the door. Jokes were cracked and smiles were shared as the 2014-15 season came to an end. And yet — as this writer walked to her car, it wasn’t so much a feeling of “it’s over” that came to my mind, but moreso a feeling of “I can’t wait to see what these guys do next.” With finals in two weeks and summer school starting in late May, the future is indeed very bright for the Irish men’s swimming program.

Lizzie Mikes,

Media Services Coordinator