Oct. 14, 2010
EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the second in a six-part series on UND.com, spotlighting the 2010-11 Notre Dame winter sports season with both written and video previews. Today, we take a look at the Fighting Irish men’s swimming & diving team, which aims to return to the top step of the BIG EAST Conference podium for the fifth time and the third time in four seasons in 2010-11.
In a sport where the difference between winning and losing comes down not just to minutes, but fractions of seconds, paying extreme attention to details and remaining focused from day one is much more than essential. With over 30 years of experience under his belt, Notre Dame head coach Tim Welsh understands that for his team to win a fifth BIG EAST Conference title in February, the cylinders must begin turning long before.
“From the minute our student-athletes step foot on campus in August, we want them to be in great shape after a summer of training,” Welsh said. “Then the real work begins. This team is in a position to challenge for another BIG EAST title, and our ambition is to be faster than ever.”
Welsh, who is entering his 26th season at Notre Dame, and his coaching staff not only seek to replace a departed senior class which accounted for 13 individual and relay titles over the last four seasons, but to nurture and develop a roster littered with the potential to advance to the NCAA Championships. The Irish have registered 13 consecutive top-four finishes in the BIG EAST Championships since joining the league in 1995-96, with two crowns in the last three seasons.
“I’ve been here for 26 seasons, but it feels like I just got here,” Welsh said. “The Notre Dame swimmers and divers, like the student body at this University, are the best part of the job. What they bring to the team in terms of energy and athleticism is fantastic. That’s where the magic in this program lies. They’re joyful and exuberant and bring a sense of camaraderie and freshness to the sport that we love to see. We stress the sense of being a family here at Notre Dame – once you become a part of Notre Dame swimming and diving, you’re part of it for life.”
Behind the leadership of two-time team captain Michael Sullivan, nine additional seniors will be counted on to steer the ship throughout the season. This year’s senior class has earned a pair of BIG EAST (2008, 2009) titles with one runner up (2010), and knows what it takes to bring home another piece of hardware.
The dynamic Sullivan posted three season-best times at the 2010 league meet, while stopping the clock at 3:51.67 in the 400 IM for third place, 1:46.80 in the 200 back for sixth place and 4:27.91 in the 500 free for ninth. His efforts were mirrored by classmate Steven Brus, who began last year’s BIG EAST Championships with a gold medal as he was a member of the victorious 800 free relay, which recorded an NCAA B-cut of 6:28.48 and then recorded two additional NCAA B-cuts (200 and 500 free) at the meet.
Senior captain Michael Sullivan posted three season-best times at last year’s BIG EAST Championships and has helped Notre Dame to a pair of league titles in his first three seasons.
This year’s senior class also features divers Wes Villaflor and Nathan Geary, who finished first and second, respectively, in the 1- and 3-meter diving events at the 2010 league meet. Villaflor was named the BIG EAST’s Most Outstanding Male Diver. Along with two-time all-BIG EAST diver Eric Lex, this could be one of Notre Dame’s deepest classes off the board in recent memory.
Coming off an injury last season, P.J. Koppel finished 2010 with a number of career bests at the BIG EAST meet. He will be a strong force for the Irish in the breast and individual medley events, as will Joseph Raycroft. Raycroft also had a career meet at the BIG EAST Championships in the breast and IM events, and was a member of the 400 medley relay team that reset the school record. Christopher Wills looks to continue his progressive improvement in the fly, back and individual medley events.
Senior freestylers Thomas Van Volkenburg and Joshua Nosal – who was part of three NCAA B-cut performances in 2009-10 – will also be expected once again to step up during the dual meet and championship portions of the schedule.
Additional Irish record holders in junior Petar Petrovic, who set the 100 back record with a performance of 48.64 at the BIG EAST meet, and sophomore Bill Bass, who smashed the 200 IM record with a time of 1:46.44, are both back for 2010-11. Petrovic was also part of two record-setting relays (200 and 400 medley), while Bass was also a part of the 200 medley relay quartet. Bass, who amassed 15 top-three finishes on the regular season, is poised for another tremendous season after one more year of training to his name.
Junior Ryan Belecanech is another third-year all-BIG EAST distance freestyler while juniors B.J. Roth Conor and Evans will also add cushion the freestyle corps. Junior Colin Francesco, like Wills, is slated to compete in a number of events (individual medley, fly and back) while classmate Brian Maloy will narrow his focus on the breast events. Kevin Rahill will add depth in the freestyle and backstroke events, as will Marshall Sherman and Jonathan Whitcomb.
Sophomore Bill Bass turned in a remarkable rookie campaign in 2009-10, posting 15 top-three finishes last year and broke the school’s 200 IM record.
An extremely strong sophomore class returns in its entirety, and looks to follow Bass’ record-breaking first-year campaign. Jordan Berry advanced to the finals of the 200 individual medley at the league meet in 2010, and Tylor Gauger swam an array of events for the Irish during his first season. Christopher Johnson is coming off the ninth-fastest 100 breast (55.63) performance in Irish history at last year’s league meet, and hopes to parlay his experience in the record-breaking 200 medley relay squad into even more accolades. Supporting the cause in the freestyle and butterfly events is John McGinley, who helped clock an NCAA B-cut time in the 400 free relay last year, and the dynamic Wesley Mullins. Kevin Overholt, Stefan Prendergast and Mason Weber also peaked at their first BIG EAST showdown.
A highly-touted five-person freshman class makes it debut in 2010-11, which includes Louisiana Swimmer of the Year Colin Babcock. Babcock will be flanked by Joshua Choi (breast, individual medley), Frank Dyer (free), Bertie Nel (free) and Patrick Sullivan (back, individual medley).
Notre Dame welcomes BIG EAST Conference rival Pittsburgh (Oct. 22) before the two-meet homestand comes to an end as the Irish hit the road the following day with a tri-meet against Oakland and Michigan, which will mark the first head-to-head contest with Michigan in program history.
“Oakland always swim very well against us, especially in its own pool,” Welsh said. “And Michigan has a strong program, and we want to be able to swim side-by-side with them.”
Notre Dame then travels to West Lafayette, Ind., for a contest with intrastate rival Purdue (Nov. 6) before welcoming Utah to the Rolfs Aquatic Center on Nov. 12. The Irish wrap up the fall segment of the schedule with a trip to the Iowa Invitational (Dec. 3-5).
After a winter training trip in Puerto Rico, Notre Dame opens the second half of the schedule with visits to Northwestern (Jan. 12), Cleveland State (Jan. 14) and Michigan State (Jan. 21) before returning home to host the Shamrock Invitational (Jan. 28-29). Ball State comes to town on Feb. 5.
The 2011 BIG EAST Diving Championships will take place Feb. 11-13 in Louisville, Ky., with the swimming events following Feb. 16-20.
The three-day NCAA Zone Diving Championships (March 11-13) will be held on the Ohio State campus at the McCorkle Aquatic Pavilion. The 2011 NCAA Championships will take place in Minneapolis, Minn., from March. 24-26.
— ND —