Oct. 9, 2009
EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the second in a six-part series on UND.com, spotlighting the 2009-10 Notre Dame winter sports season with both written and video previews. Today, we take a look at the two-time defending BIG EAST Conference champion Fighting Irish men’s swimming & diving team.
Already an established force in the BIG EAST Conference by virtue of four team titles and a pair of runner-up finishes over the last six seasons, the Notre Dame men’s swimming and diving program looks ahead to the 2009-10 campaign with an even loftier goal – the NCAA Championships.
Entering his 25th season at the helm of the Irish program, head coach Tim Welsh and his veteran staff have constructed a program laced with exceptional talent across the board that should put Notre Dame on the doorstep – and likely into – the national meet hosted by Ohio State this spring.
“This is an exciting year ahead. We are big, we’re young, we’re looking at a very exciting schedule and we hope to be fast,” Welsh said. “We love the energy that a large freshmen class brings to the program, and we have our fingers crossed that we learn all the right things at the right time.
“This is certainly the deepest team we have ever had and we need this group to take a giant step. If the group takes a giant step, then the season we anticipate having gets a little closer to actually happening. Last year we started with a couple of big holes due to injuries. But at this point we are healthy, excited and ready to go.”
Senior captain John Lytle, who has a hand in seven school records, is one of seven seniors without an appearance in the NCAA Championships. The Irish return a combined 14 BIG EAST title holders, with Lytle’s program-best 16 all-league accolades leading the way into a repeat effort in 2010.
“As far as defending the BIG EAST title goes, we don’t think in terms of defending it but we do think in terms of winning it,” Welsh said. “We definitely want to be in a position where we are not swimming to prevent a loss, but swimming to create a victory. The way we focus on it this goal is swimming fast enough for the points to take care of themselves. So in the simplest of terms, it is all about improving, and I am sure that every team at the meet would say that. But if we improve the way we want to improve, and if we go fast at the right time, we will be pleased with the results.”
Senior captain John Lytle has piled up 16 all-BIG EAST accolades and seven school records during his first three seasons at Notre Dame.
On the distance side it will be Deters, the 2009 BIG EAST 1,650 Free champion, leading the charge. Deters will be joined in distance events by Ryan Belecanech, who placed third in the 1,650 Free at last year’s league meet. Steven Brus, the 500 Free champion at the BIG EAST meet, also returns to swim in a number of events.
Fellow captain MacKenzie LeBlanc will bring his versatility and five all-BIG EAST accolades to the table along with diver Caleb Dunnichay’s know-how after earning a national championship with Auburn in 2007.
“If you look at some of our returning student-athletes, we return quite a few university record holders,” said Welsh. “John Lytle is back, MacKenzie LeBlanc is back, Steven Brus is back, Andrew Deters is back, Andrew Hoffman is back, Michael Sullivan is back. Three of four members of last year’s 200, 400 and 800 Free Relay teams return.”
Add an incoming freshmen class tabbed as the nation’s 14th best by CollegeSwimming.com to an already championship program, and the Irish may have just the right recipe for success in 2009-10.
“It is a big, fast, exciting freshmen class,” Welsh said. “They are all USA Junior National level or above and they cover some of the gaps we had last year, particularly in the 200 IM and the 100 Breast. Many of them have already notched times that were competitive with everything that we did last year. We think they are a class that will make a big contribution to our program. On paper they are as fast of a class as we have ever had enter Notre Dame. Paper doesn’t make you one second faster in the pool, so it all counts on what happens when we get in the water.”
Kevin Overholt, the nation’s 24th-ranked recruit, was one of the country’s top sprinters last year and should add speed to the Irish relays. Chris Johnson and Mason Weber have already recorded times faster than any current Irish breastroker. Tack on the likes of John McGinley, Bill Bass, Jordan Berry and New Orleans transfer Petar Petrovic, Serbia’s national champion in the 50 Back in 2006, and Notre Dame has the speed and depth to make a late-season run to the NCAAs.
“We were thin in the 100 Breast last year, but Joseph Raycroft had a phenomenal summer and raced faster long-course than he has before, which should help us this year. Chris Johnson and Mason Weber both bring breaststroke speed. When you add Kevin Overholt and Bill Bass to our 200 Free mix, we can go six or seven deep in that event at times that were faster than eighth place at last year’s BIG EAST meet. Swimmers in the 200 Free are like baseball pitchers, you just can’t have too many good ones.”
“Michael Sullivan has been swimming lights out for us,” Welsh said. “We’ll also count on him in the individual medleys, and those events are plugged with depth for us.”
Senior Caleb Dunnichay not only is one of three returning all-BIG EAST divers for the Fighting Irish, but he also has NCAA Championship experience, having won a national title at Auburn in 2007.
Notre Dame dominated the diving portion of last year’s league meet and returns everyone off the board except for All-American Michael Bulfin who graduated last spring. Eric Lex, Wesley Villaflor and Dunnichay have each earned all-league accolades throughout their careers.
“Everything we talked about since the end of last year is in terms of giant steps,” Welsh said. “We have taken baby steps. We need a giant step. We think we have underclassmen and upperclassmen with giant step capability. Not just in the pool, but out of the pool. Our spring grade-point average ranked fifth in the nation, and we want to improve on that. We’ve won the last two BIG EAST titles, and we’re shooting for a third.
“We’ve also been much more active in community service. I think those types of things – like academics and service – help characterize this program. What we are trying to do this year is redefine what we consider normal for this program and to do it in a giant step forward way.”
Notre Dame begins the season Oct. 9 by hosting the Dennis Stark Relays. The Irish will host seven meets throughout the year, including four in a three-week stretch in January, before zeroing in on the program’s fifth conference crown in six years.
“The 2009-10 schedule looks good for the team this season. It’s very challenging and there are a lot of home meets, which we like,” Welsh said. “It is a very powerful schedule with some of the top finishers from last year’s BIG EAST Conference Championships as well as Purdue, Northwestern and Michigan State on the slate, all of which are much improved.”
Notre Dame plays host to Oakland (Oct. 23) two weeks into the season and concludes the home portion of the fall schedule with visits from Cleveland State and Miami (Ohio) on Oct. 31.
Notre Dame then travels to West Lafayette for a showdown with Big Ten powerhouse Purdue (Nov. 6), before taking on BIG EAST foe Pittsburgh on the road. The Irish have defeated Pittsburgh in five straight dual meets, including a win over the 17th-ranked Panthers in 2004.
The Irish conclude the fall portion of the schedule with a trip to Columbus for the Ohio State Invitational for the fourth consecutive season. Notre Dame finished fourth in last year’s 12-team field.
Northwestern (Jan. 9), Michigan State (Jan. 15) and Louisville (Jan. 16) come to town to begin the second half of the season with the Shamrock Invitational to follow on Jan. 29-30.
“The last two weeks of the schedule are extremely important because we want to finish our season strong, and it will be challenging with the strength of the schedule at that time of the year,” Welsh said. “From the middle of January to the middle of February we better be fast.”
The 2010 BIG EAST Conference Diving Championships will take place Feb. 12-14 in Pittsburgh, Pa., followed by the swimming events on Feb. 17-20.
The Irish will take part in the Austin Grand Prix (March 4-6), hosted by the University of Texas, and the Boiler-Make-It Invitational in West Lafayette (March 7) before the NCAA Championships. Purdue will host the NCAA Zone Diving Championships (March 12-13), and the NCAA Swimming and Diving Championships will take place in Columbus from March 25-27.
Notre Dame finished with a 7-6 dual meet record last season before notching a thrilling win in the final race of the 2009 BIG EAST Championships to edge Louisville, 782.5-773, for the title. The Irish 400 Free Relay team of Lytle, Nosal, Hoffman and Danny Lutkus knocked off the Louisville squad – a seven-second favorite – to capture the team crown.
— ND —