November 3, 2017
By John Heisler
Here’s the Fighting Irish Athletics Trivia question of the day:
Which University of Notre Dame athletic program recorded the most wins in October over ranked opponents?
Was it (a.) the Irish football team, thanks to eye-opening victories over USC and North Carolina State?
Was it (b.) the Notre Dame hockey team, coming off an NCAA Frozen Four appearance last spring?
Maybe it was (c.) either the Irish men’s or women’s soccer squad, both perennial contenders for national and Atlantic Coast Conference honors?
How about (d.) Muffet McGraw’s Irish women’s basketball unit, ranked fifth nationally itself?
Actually, the correct answer is none of the above.
The right response can be found on the east side of the Joyce Center, at the Rolfs Aquatic Center, where the Notre Dame men’s and women’s swimming teams are creating waves the size not seen before in Irish swimming history.
Mike Litzinger’s men and women jumped in feet first, beginning the schedule by knocking off ranked Louisville squads (the Cardinals’ men stood seventh nationally, the women ninth)-marking the first Notre Dame victories over top-10 swimming opponents.
Two weeks later they did it again-this time with road wins against Purdue squads rated 16th (women) and 23rd (men).
Both Irish teams finished October at 4-1-with their lone losses coming at the hands of top-20 teams from Texas A&M.
That early success has resulted in the Notre Dame teams achieving rankings of 10th (women) and 14th (men) in the College Swimming & Diving Coaches Association of America polls.
Both those represent high-water marks for Notre Dame swimming squads (the men previously ranked as high as 16th 11 years ago, the women as high as 18th in 2012).
Says Litzinger, “The rankings are our peer recognition. Through the summer and through recruiting, you run into high school coaches and club coaches, and they say, ‘Hey, you guys are coming on, coming on.’ It’s fun to hear that, but when you see it on paper it becomes reality.
“I’m trying to keep it even-keeled with the team. When we beat a Louisville or match up against an Indiana team next week that’s number one, it’s fun to kind of turn the swimming world on its end a little bit because it’s so dominated by southern schools.
“The whole goal is to put Notre Dame where Notre Dame deserves to be-that was always the goal for myself coming in the door. In speaking with (athletics director) Jack (Swarbrick) and the staff, the thought was that we could do something special here.
“We’re seeing the beginnings of that.”
Litzinger originally came to Notre Dame as the women’s head coach for 2015-16 (also coaching the Irish men’s squad that year on an interim basis), then took over a combined Irish men’s and women’s program (like most of the other Atlantic Coast Conference schools) starting in 2016-17. He moved to South Bend after eight seasons as assistant and associate coach at North Carolina, seven years as head men’s and women’s coach at Utah and seven more as head women’s coach at St. Bonaventure.
Litzinger took charge of an Irish women’s program that twice has finished as high as 16th in the NCAA Championships (in 2013 and 2014). Notre Dame dominated the BIG EAST Conference, claiming 14 straight league titles from 1997 through 2010. The Irish first qualified a swimmer for the NCAA meet in 1990 when freshman and eventual five-time All-American Tanya Williams took 11th place in the 400 individual medley. Carrie Nixon set the NCAA Championship record in the 50 freestyle in 2000. Emma Reaney was a five-time All-American in 2012-14, competing in the 100 and 200 breaststroke and the 200 IM.
The Irish men’s program has been around since 1958-59. After an NCAA qualifying diver in 1975 (Bob Ebel), Notre Dame’s first NCAA swimmer came in 2005 in Tim Kegelman (100 and 200 butterfly and 200 IM). The Irish won six BIG EAST Championship crowns-and Frank Dyer dominated freestyle competition as a four-time NCAA qualifier, highlighted by a fifth-place finish in the 200 free as a senior in 2014.
Litzinger brought a simple philosophy to the Irish program.
“If there was a culture change, it was really fundamental,” he says. “It’s about being excellent at what you do. That’s what Notre Dame brings to the table. It’s high-end athletics and high-end academics, and we’re going to do them both well and those are the kids we’re going to recruit.
“The kids we are speaking with and that are attracted to us are people who are organized, train hard, study hard and socially their priorities are in line. I think we’re taking a step forward in trying to maximize what Notre Dame can be for people. Combine that with the rich tradition of this place, and it becomes an easy choice for a lot of people.”
Litzinger believes the transition to a new coaching staff has gone smoothly.
“All credit goes to the seniors, especially on the women’s side,” he says. “I came in with the staff and we projected our goals–and they bought into it and they’ve helped progress the program with how they train and how they react.
“We’ve directed the talent a little more on the men’s side, but the group knows what it wants to do. They believe the goal is attainable and that makes taking the next step easier, to buy what you’re selling.
“When you match up against teams, there is a game strategy. If you can find a way to build your team so you’re three deep in each event and you have good diving on the other end and have great relays, all the sudden beating a ranked Louisville team or matching up with a Texas A&M or an Indiana does not become out of the realm of possibility for us.
“We’re going to win a lot of those meets. Once you do it the first time, doing it the second time becomes a little easier. The training level is raised in the pool. I call it the washing machine–you have no choice because you get caught up in the spin cycle and you’re moving fast and it translates into fast performances.”
Litzinger knows the Irish have had a handful of national-class swimmers. His job is to find more, and the youthful look to the current Notre Dame rosters suggests he and his staff are progressing in that category.
Freshman Zachary Yeadon already has broken pool records held by former Olympians. He won national and ACC swimmer-of-the-week honors for his work in the 500 and 1,000 freestyle events against Louisville. Sophomore Abbie Dolan did the same while swimming the 50, 100 and 200 freestyle.
“You had someone like Emma Reaney or Frank Dyer here, so there’s no question it can be done and done consistently,” says Litzinger. “When we talked to Zach and his family, Notre Dame checked a lot of boxes. One box we did not check consistently was National Team, Olympic Trials finals, those kind of things.
“The good thing is I’ve been on the National Team staff, I’ve put kids on the National Team and our staff has been places where it’s not foreign. We just need to do it here, and we haven’t been here long enough to do that. Zach and his family were comfortable we could help take him where he needed to go.
“One great athlete begets the next and the next, and that’s where we are right now. Whether it’s Zach or Abbie Dolan or Alice Treuth-they raise the level of practice and people have a choice, either go with them or be left in the dust. Those kids are taking the rest of our team with them.”
Litzinger also understands that building quality depth across the board will be the key to Notre Dame’s future success.
“It’s all about the team,” he says. “I was the third women’s coach for the team in three years, and I ended up the third men’s coach in three years, too. We weren’t going to make wholesale changes, we were going to work hard and compete at a high level. Their focus is tight and we have a really good baseline of consistent performances.
“It was not a surprise to me that we swam fast because that’s what I’d seen. It’s not a surprise to see Zach do what he did because I know what he’s capable of. Why should it be a surprise that we beat Louisville because we’re good. That’s a failure on other people’s part to realize what we’ve put together here.
“The result of the ranking is real, and consistency is the main thing we bring-consistent effort, consistent focus. It’s all a process and we’re going to compete. That’s why we had four weekends (of competition) in a row to start-to teach them to compete.
“You talk about the football team having the toughest schedule in the country, well we want a Notre Dame schedule as well. When we go to the national championships we want to have seen it all. We want to have challenged ourselves against the best competition.”
The ACC all by itself will provide Notre Dame with plenty of challenges. The current CSCAA men’s poll lists NC State sixth, Louisville 13th, Notre Dame 14th, Virginia Tech 19th, Florida State 21st, Georgia Tech 24th and Virginia 25th. The women’s version has Notre Dame 10th, Louisville 11th, NC State 13th, Virginia 14th, North Carolina 19th, Virginia Tech 21st and Duke 23rd.
And Notre Dame’s head coach, despite that grueling four-week start that comprised October, likes the fact his swimmers and divers have taken a moment or two to enjoy their successes-even in knowing these are simply the first steps toward championship meets in February and March.
“It’s definitely fun,” he says. “One of the best days we had was when the rankings came out October 25. We put the graphic up downstairs at the pool with the rankings and a picture of the team behind it. Everybody had a nice little smile at the corner of their mouth.
“It’s nice to put up the rankings and have Notre Dame up there and have some of those more traditional powerhouses below you.
“We haven’t arrived, by any means, but we’re on the way.”
And if Litzinger and his Irish have their way, it won’t be long before they’ll qualify as far more than the answer to a trivia question.