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By David Rieder
AUSTIN, Texas, March 30. THE final evening of the men’s Division I NCAA Swimming and Diving Championships figured to come down to a dogfight between the Texas Longhorns and California Golden Bears. Off the strength of two-time diving champion Michael Hixon and surprisingly strong relays, Texas led after each of the first two days of competition before a huge performance during day three prelims put them in a position to challenge for Eddie Reese’s record-tying 11th national championship.
The initial projections for a final score of Texas 441.5, Cal 437.5 included Texas scoring two points in the 1650 with John Lewis seeded 15th and Cal scoring one with Jeremy Bagshaw projected to finish 16th. However, Bagshaw blasted out a 14:39.00, taking 17 seconds off his seed time, and that time held up in the last heat for second place between Michigan’s Connor Jaeger and Florida’s Arthur Frayler, two swimmers on teams that had fallen out of the national title race in the prior 24 hours.
Meanwhile, Lewis added three seconds from his seed time, and he finished 21st. The 18 point swing put Cal back in the driver’s seat, and they pulled away from there. Jack Conger, the highly-lauded freshman star for Texas, had title hopes in the 200 back, but he faded to eighth, while Cal’s Jacob Pebley moved up from eighth to fourth while teammate Ryan Murphy won his second title of the meet. Texas appeared to have run out of gas in the last finals session, as John Murray added seven tenths of a second to fall from second to fifth in the 100 free.
The Bears continued to pile on the points, with Tyler Messerschmidt won the consolation final of the 100 free; Chuck Katis and Josh Prenot finished fifth and sixth, respectively, in the 200 breast; and Marcin Tarcyznski took third in the 200 fly. Even with Hixon earning A-final points in platform diving, the title had been clinched heading into the 400 free relay, where Cal was content to settle for second place in exchange for the championship.
Cal earned a 51 point win over Texas, while Florida took third and Michigan fourth. With the focus on the top four for much of the meet, few noticed the team that ended up finishing fifth, the Georgia Bulldogs. A week after their women took the national title, the Georgia men held put up strong swims all weekend, but they had to fight off SEC rival Auburn on day three to pick up a rare top-five finish. On Saturday Senior Andrew Gemmell finished off his college career with a fifth place finish in the 1650, while Nic Fink picked up another podium finish as he grabbed third in the 200 breast.
In the past much the Bulldogs’ success on the national level came in the form of individual event winners, such as Sebastian Rouault, Troy Prinsloo, and Martin Grodski have won national championships in the 1650 and Gil Stovall and Mark Dylla in the 200 fly. However, without significant depth or strength in relay events the Bulldogs never become more than a fringe top-ten squad. This year’s Georgia’s team still had the individual stars (see Kalisz, Chase), but having the likes of Fink, Matias Koski, and Doug Reynolds to propel the relays to big points has propelled the Bulldogs to the next level.
On the other side of the coin, the North Carolina State Wolfpack came in with high expectations after an extremely impressive performance at the ACC Championships in Greensboro, where they took second to a Virginia Tech team strong in diving. They entered Austin with high expectations, and the initial psych sheet projections – albeit without diving – had them finishing as high as third in the team race. Entering as a favorite in the 200 free relay to start the meet, two different swimmers false started in the prelims, and sprinters Simonas Bilis, David Williams, and Jonathan Boffa couldn’t repeat their fireworks from Greensboro.
In the meet’s final event, Bilis, Williams, Boffa, and Andreas Schiellerup swam out of lane two, and Boffa put them in the lead with 100 yards to go. Broadcasting for ESPN3, Rowdy Gaines told viewers it would be a “huge upset” for NC State to win, but they came into the meet with the second seed in the event, having clocked 2:50.06 when the dominated the field at the ACC Championships. Auburn’s Kyle Darmody and Cal’s Seth Stubblefield ended up passing Schiellerup on the anchor leg, but the Wolfpack left a statement about what could have been in Austin. Boffa will graduate, but this team has a solid sprint corps to keep an eye on.
Finally, how about a shout-out for Duke’s Nick McCrory, who won his fourth career national championship in the ten meter platform. McCrory became the first man to fourpeat since Brendan Hansen (100 and 200 breast) and Ian Crocker (100 fly) wrapped up their careers in 2004. Only one other diver has accomplished that feat, when Troy Dumais won the three meter in four consecutive years from 1999-2002. However, it almost was not to be for McCrory, who pulled out of the three meter springboard during prelims on Friday after sustaining an injury.
After putting that ailment aside to compete on Saturday, McCrory found himself in fifth place with two dives to go and fourth with only one chance remaining. He needed to ace his final dive, his most difficult, to pass Arizona’s Rafael Quintero, and McCrory did just that, earning one ten in the process. McCrory had established himself as the most decorated diver in ACC history and one of the premier divers in the country between his NCAA accomplishments and his Olympic bronze medal in the synchro platform event, but in one dive on Saturday he epitomized clutch performance and guts.