October 13, 1998
Notre Dame men’s swimming coach Tim Welsh’s goal for his team this season is simple – it must swim faster.
The Irish fulfilled that goal a year ago with a 11-1 dual meet record and a fourth-place finish at the BIG EAST championships. The fourth place was Notre Dame’s highest finish since it joined the BIG EAST in 1996 and marked an improvement of three spots in the overall team standings.
This year’s squad returns most of the same swimmers that set 11 school records in 1997-98.
“We have a stronger team this year,” said Welsh, who is in his 14th year as head coach. “Our depth has improved and there’s less of a gap between the fastest and the slowest guy on our team.”
While the team goal continues to be improving at the BIG EAST meet, its long-term goal is to qualify the first Notre Dame men’s swimmer or diver for the NCAA championships. A year ago, the Irish came close when Ray Fitzpatrick (Doylestown, Pa.) swam a 1:39.20 in the 200 freestyle at the Shamrock Classic to establish an NCAA consideration time.
Among the swimmers Welsh thinks have the best chance of becoming the first to qualify for the NCAAs this year are sophomores Dan Szilier (Norristown, Pa.), who qualified for the World University Games this past summer in the 200-meter breaststroke, James Scott-Browne (Seattle, Wash.) and Brian Skorney (Staten Island, N.Y.) and seniors Steele Whowell (Fontana, Wis.) and Scott Zumbach (Katonah, N.Y.). All of the latter four broke at least one school record in 1997-98.
“As a team, our focus is the BIG EAST,” Welsh said. “Qualifying someone for the NCAA championships will just be the result of someone going fast enough at the BIG EAST meet or even before it.”
One of the strongest strokes for the Irish this year will be the freestyle, especially in the middle and long-distance ranges.
“Freestyle is our strongest event, our thinnest event and even our weakest event to some extent,” Welsh said. “We’re all over the freestyle map, but we’re probably as strong in the distance freestyle as we are in any other event. The only thing close to that is the 400 IM.”
In the distance freestyle events, Welsh will look to Scott-Browne in both the 1,000 and 1,650-yard free. Scott-Browne set a Notre Dame record in the 1,000-yard freestyle with a time of 9:25.74 at the Air Force and West Virginia triangular in late November of 1997. He also finished third at the BIG EAST championships in the 1,650 free and won every time he competed in the 1,000-yard event. Scott-Browne also will be expected to help in the 500-yard free where he notched 10 top-four finishes as a freshman.
Joining Scott-Browne in the 500 free will be juniors John Lubker (Roswell, Ga.) and Fitzpatrick, sophomore Matt Grunewald (Centerville, Ohio) and freshman Travis Kline (Glens Falls, N.Y.).
Fitzpatrick, after a solid summer of training, also will be the main swimmer for the Irish in the 200 free. In addition to recording an NCAA consideration time last season, Fitzpatrick broke David Nathe’s seven-year-old record in the event. The former high school All-American, however, will need help during dual meets and at the BIG EAST championships for one of the more complicated swimming events.
“The 200 is a very sophisticated race,” Welsh said. “It’s part speed, part endurance, part pace, part strategy and part pain tolerance. Everything you want goes into the 200.”
For the 100 free, the Irish will look to the team’s best athletes such as Russell Preston (Boca Raton, Fla.), Vince Kuna (Naperville, Ill.), Rob Fetter (Lakeland, Fla.),Whowell and Fitzpatrick to fill the hole left open with the graduation of Ron Royer.
Welsh also will need to find a way to replace Royer in the 50-yard freestyle.
“We’re going to be thinner in the 50 freestyle than we have been in a while,” Welsh said. “With the graduation of Ron Royer, our lead 50-yard freestyler, it gives us a great opportunity to really create spaces for new people.”
Some of the new people for the Irish in the 50 free will be Kuna, who has the most experience, Preston, freshman Mike Koss (Aurora, Colo.) and senior Mike Doyle (Hales Corners, Wis.).
Although the team may be relatively deep in the freestyle events, Welsh will look mainly to four swimmers in the breaststroke. Leading the way will be Whowell, one of the team’s two co-captains, who swam the top time in the 100 breaststroke a year ago and holds four of the top 10 marks in Irish history. Junior Antonio Fonseca (Greenville, R.I.) and sophomore Matt Hedden (Westerville, Ohio) also will be expected to contribute both in the 100- and 200-yard races, while Szilier recorded the team’s best time in the 200 breaststroke a year ago.
“Any race where breaststroke fitness is an issue is clearly to Dan’s advantage,” Welsh said. “Where he has to do some learning is in his wall technique, so that the speed he has can be carried throughout the race.”
The backstroke events will see the most changes for the Irish this season.
“From the start of the season to the end of the season, both who is in the 100 and 200 and what the order of finish will be, we expect to change and want it to change,” Welsh said. “The more it changes, the better we are.”
Skorney and senior co-captain Chris Fugate (Independence, Mo.) are the team’s top two backstrokers. Skorney set the Irish record last season in the 100 backstroke at the Shamrock Classic with a time of 51.36, while Fugate holds seven of the top 10 times in Irish history in the 100. Fugate also has the fourth, fifth and ninth fastest times in the 200-yard backstroke.
“Chris was eyeball to eyeball with Brian in the 100 backstroke all year long and each race they’re going to make each other better,” Welsh said.
In addition to Skorney and Fugate, junior Peter Mehok (Stamford, Conn.), sophomore Greg Juszil (Hudson, Ohio) and freshman David Horak (Dumfries, Va.) should all contribute in the backstroke .
The 100-yard butterfly is another opportunity event for the team. Ryan Verlin (Rye, N.Y.), Grant Burrall (Cedarburg, Wis.), Scott-Browne and Fitzpatrick are just some of the names that Welsh can use for the butterfly races, however he will look mainly toward Zumbach as the leader.
“Scott Zumbach is a rock-solid, dependable and great day-in and day-out racer,” Welsh said.
Zumbach, the team MVP last season, set three school records at the 1998 BIG EAST championships in the 200-yard butterfly, the 400 individual medley and was a part of the record-setting 400-yard medley relay team.
The individual medley events are another team strength for the Irish. Along with Zumbach, Sean Casey (Little Rock, Ark.), Lubker, Burrall, Scott-Browne, Verlin, Kline and Fetter will all be in the mix for the team in the 400 IM. Although the 200 IM will not be quite as deep, Welsh expects Zumbach, Verlin and Fugate to contribute in the event.
One event where the Irish are not as deep is in diving. Junior Herb Huesman (Cincinnati, Ohio) has been a one-man show for the team over the past two seasons. A year ago, Huesman finished 12th in the three-meter and 10th in the one-meter event at the NCAA Zone C meet. The four-time prep All-American also placed fourth in both diving events at the BIG EAST championships after scoring seven dual-meet wins on the one-meter diving board and six dual-meet wins at three meters.
“Herbie’s commitment to diving is very strong,” Welsh says. “He’s done a magnificent job for us in just two seasons.”
If the team has ambitions of improving its placing at the BIG EAST meet, it must improve in the relay events, according to Welsh.
“If there’s one place that we need to improve on as a team, it’s in the relays,” Welsh said. “Relays are team oriented, are good for spirit and give energy to the group.”
The Irish return all four members of the record-setting 200 and 400 medley relay teams in Fugate, Whowell, Fetter, Preston and Zumbach. The sprint relays, however, will see new faces and have to develop over the course of the season.
“There’s a lot of opportunity for people to step up in the relays,” Welsh said. “There’s a chance to make a major contribution to Notre Dame swimming.”