Last Relay Secures Paper-thin Win For Notre Dame Women over Illinois

NOTRE DAME, IN, January 20. TRAILING 175-172 with one event remaining, Notre Dame won the 400 freestyle relay by .06 seconds, giving the Irish a 183-181 win over a game squad from Illinois, who also scored a meet with #13 Michigan, per reports from the host school.

Sophomores Katie Carroll (Toledo, Ohio/Notre Dame Academy) and Ellen Johnson (Toledo, Ohio/Notre Dame Academy), freshman Caroline Johnson (Springfield, Mo./Glendale H.S.), and sophomore Rebecca Grove (Yorktown Heights, N.Y./Yorktown H.S.) won the last event to hand the 21st-ranked University of Notre Dame women's swimming and diving team (5-2) a thrilling 183-181 victory against Illinois (3-3) Saturday in the Rolfs Aquatic Center.

The second day of the three-session, championship-style meet – which also featured #13 Michigan swimming against Illinois – saw a variety of crunch-time heroics by the six Irish seniors taking part in their final home meet, highlighted by fifth-year All-America diver Meghan Perry-Eaton (Brandon, Fla./Bloomingdale H.S.) setting a pool record for the second day in a row, claiming the only Rolfs Aquatic Center record she did not own.

With a margin of only three points separating the teams, the reality of the final race was that whichever squad saw its top relay touch the wall first – regardless of any other finishes – would be the team victor. Illinois' group of sophomore Meghan Farrell, seniors Kirsten Koepcke and Amy Downing and sophomore Barbie Viney came in with a seed time of 3:29.15 that was .24 seconds quicker than Notre Dame's seeding. Carroll and Farrell raced evenly for the first half of their legs, but the Irish sophomore – the 2004 BIG EAST champion and an NCAA qualifier in the 100 free – finished better, posting a leadoff time of 51.94 that is the top mark by any Irish swimmer in the 100 this season. She gave Ellen Johnson a lead of just over one-half second, and her classmate and former high school teammate extended that, outracing Koepcke by .68 seconds with a split time of 52.79. Caroline Johnson jumped in the pool with a lead of 1.25 seconds, and she swam a leg of 51.62 to build that cushion to 1.75 seconds for Grove. But the Irish sophomore had to contend with Illinois' Barbie Viney, who came into the meet ranked 42nd in Division I in the 100 free and had earlier on Saturday claimed an easy victory in the event, beating the field by nearly a second with a time of 50.73. Using a relay start, she turned in an outstanding leg, going out in 23.95 and eventually closing to virtually even with Grove with 15 yards to go. But it was the Yorktown Heights, N.Y., native whose fingertips reached the wall first, posting a time of 3:28.22 that was the best for the Irish this season. Viney turned in a leg of 50.18, but it was not quite enough, as the Illini finished in 3:28.28 and fell just shy of beating the Irish for the first time since 1997.

After holding a one-point advantage after the first session, Notre Dame immediately fell behind the Illini and would not retake the lead again until after the 16th event (of 20). Saturday morning's first race, the 200 medley relay, was a springboard for Illinois, which finished first and third, while the Irish were fourth. That put the Illini up 68-56 through seven events. The lead would grow to as many as 24 points (112-88) following a 1-2 Illinois finish in the 100 breaststroke, and Notre Dame went into the final session trailing by 12.

Perry-Eaton concluded her time diving in the Rolfs Aquatic Center appropriately, flipping and twisting with such precision and consistency that she shattered the only pool diving record she had not yet reached. Her score of 576.05 points for 11 dives was more than 25 points better than the best performance prior in the facility, a score of 550.55 by Heather Mattingly at the 2000 Notre Dame Invitational. In her last chance to break that mark, Perry-Eaton turned in the second-highest score ever for a Notre Dame diver in the event, behind only her Irish record of 586.43 against the Illini and Wolverines in Champaign-Urbana on Jan. 17, 2003. The win extended Perry-Eaton's dual-meet winning streak in three-meter competition to 21 in a row, dating back to Nov. 8, 2002. She is 8-0 in 2004-05 in three-meter action and has won 15 of 16 competitions she has entered. With just over two months left in her collegiate career, Perry-Eaton has but one number left to reach to make it a clean sweep in both the Rolfs Aquatic Center and Notre Dame record books. That is a score of 351.15 for six dives off the three-meter board, a mark put up by Mattingly on Jan. 26, 2001.

Senior co-captain Kelli Barton (Scottsdale, Ariz./Chaparral H.S.) and sophomore Abby Strang (St. Simons Island, Ga./Bolles School) took third and fourth in the first swimming event of the final session, the 1,650 freestyle, with times of 17:20.69 and 17:38.01. Rookie Morgan Bullock (Stamford, Conn./Westhill H.S.), swimming the race for the first time as a collegian, also contributed one point for Notre Dame with a seventh-place finish in 18:18.61. Meanwhile, Michigan sophomore Susan Gilliam, who ranks sixth in Division I in the race, broke the Rolfs Aquatic Center record by nearly two seconds, winning the race in 16:38.52 to top former teammate Emily-Clare Fenn's time of 16:40.28, set in 2003.

In her final home meet, senior Kristen Peterson (Wichita, Kan./Bishop Carroll H.S.) put the Irish back ahead by finishing fourth (behind three Michigan swimmers, two of which beat her by less than .20 seconds) in the 200 backstroke with a time of 2:06.85 and outtouching Illinois freshman Mallory Craft by .18 seconds. Ellen Johnson, fellow sophomore Ann Barton (Scottsdale, Ariz./Desert Mountain H.S.), and freshman Noémie Brand (Pointe-Claire, Québec/Phillips Exeter Academy [NH]) were right behind Craft, helping to stake the Irish to a 147-143 advantage.

Immediately the Irish found themselves in a nine-point hole again, as Illinois finished first, third, and fourth in the 100 freestyle, and Caroline Johnson was Notre Dame's top performer, taking seventh in 53.52.

Things looked bleaker for the Irish when Illinois' Trisha Lakatos won the 200 breaststroke with an NCAA "B" cut of 2:18.26. Irish sophomore Jessica Stephens (Bloomsburg, Pa./Bloomsburg H.S.) took third in 2:21.37, but Illinois' Kathryn Easey finished fourth. Notre Dame's senior co-captains, Kelli Barton and Georgia Healey (New York, N.Y./Trinity School), also grabbed precious points for their team, finishing sixth and seventh, respectively, with times of 2:24.66 and 2:25.73.

Down by 14 points (171-157) with just two events remaining, Notre Dame got outstanding swims from Carroll and senior Brooke Taylor (Orlando, Fla./Lake Highland Preparatory School) in the 200 butterfly to get within striking distance. The sophomore won the race with a season-best time of 2:03.44 – which ranks fourth among BIG EAST swimmers in 2004-05 – while the veteran continued a penchant she showed throughout her career for coming up at big times in dual meets, claiming second place in 2:05.71. Freshman Katie Hopkins (Ellicott City, Md./Notre Dame Preparatory School) was right on the heels of Illinois' top finisher, Jessica Rothenberg, taking sixth with a time of 2:08.94 to set the stage for the final relay.

One highlight of the morning session on Saturday was Carroll taking second in the 400 individual medley with a time of 4:25.56 in her second time swimming the race this season. She was beaten by Michigan's Justine Mueller, who posted an NCAA "B" cut of 4:22.08. Ann Barton finished fourth with a mark of 4:30.33.

Despite battling sickness all weekend that caused her to scratch out of all but one race, junior Christel Bouvron (Singapore, Singapore/Raffles Girls' Secondary School) was the runner-up in the 100 butterfly with a time of 57.75 that was just .09 seconds behind Christina Brunka of Illinois.

Caroline Johnson turned in a second-place performance of her own in the 100 backstroke with a time of 58.58, while Grove was fifth in 59.49.

The Irish closed the morning session on a strong note, taking second to Michigan in the 800 free relay with a season-best time of 7:32.56 turned in by Carroll, Ellen Johnson, Ann Barton, and Caroline Johnson.

Ellen Johnson led the Irish contingent in the 200 free, taking third in 1:53.62, while freshman Kayla Graham (Dartmouth, Nova Scotia/Auburn Drive H.S.) took fifth with a time of 1:55.42.

In the 100 breaststroke, it was Stephens ending up third in 1:07.38, while rookie Natalie Burke (Cape Town, South Africa/Reddam House College) was fifth with a time of 1:07.81.

After losing to #21 Arizona State and #25 Purdue on Oct. 29, the Irish have now won four dual meets in a row.

It was the first time Notre Dame had been involved in a meet that was decided on the final relay since Feb. 1, 2003, when the Irish beat Michigan by .33 seconds in the 200 free relay to claim a 153-147 victory in the Rolfs Aquatic Center. The two-point final margin was the closest meet for the Irish since they tied Purdue 150-150 on Oct. 10, 2002.

Notre Dame beat Illinois for the eighth consecutive year and improved to 23-8-1 (.734) against Big Ten Conference opponents under current head coach Bailey Weathers.

The Irish finished 2004-05 with a 4-0 record at home, marking the fourth undefeated home record in the last six years. Notre Dame has now lost one dual meet or fewer at home in 11 consecutive campaigns.

The spring semester continued to be kind to the Irish, who are now 25-1 (.962) in dual-meet action in January and February over the past six seasons.

Notre Dame will return to action in two weeks, traveling to Ann Arbor, Mich., for a dual meet against Michigan. It will be the third time the teams see each other in the month of January, after they also competed at the Saint Lucia Invitational on Jan. 2.

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