ACC Weekly Preview: Virginia Tech Continues Busy October With Home Quad; Defending Champs Debut

Photo Courtesy: Andy Ringgold

The Virginia Tech Hokies have gotten off to a busy start this season, having already participated in the Florida Gulf Coast Classic and then swept home dual meets with Penn State. Now in the pool for the third weekend in a row, the team welcomes Duke, West Virginia and William & Mary to Christiansburg for a two-day quad meet. Elsewhere, defending ACC champions Virginia (women’s) and NC State (men’s) open up their respective campaigns.

Meet of the Week: Duke, West Virginia and William & Mary at Virginia Tech, Friday 5 p.m. & Saturday 11 a.m.

A strong veteran core has gotten the Hokies off to a quick start this season. Robert Owen (back/IM) and Brandon Fiala (breast/IM), both ACC champions a season ago, have performed well in the first two meets, as have versatile sophomore Norbert Szabo, sophomore distance man Nathan Pawlowicz and freshman sprinter Ian Ho. On the women’s side, Klaudia NaziebloJessica Hespeler and Fiona Donnelly have been the leaders of the early-season campaign.

“We are pleased with our performances knowing that we’re in ‘Roctober,’ meaning that we’re in a heavy training phase,” Hokies head coach Ned Skinner said. “I think the senior leadership is outstanding, which is trickling down to the rest of the team. When you have great leadership, it’s making all the difference.”

The Blue Devils, meanwhile, will be making their season debut after Hurricane Matthew forced the cancellation of their season-opening tri-meet in Tallahassee. Duke will led by juniors Leah Goldman and Isa Paez—both NCAA qualifiers their first two years—as well as senior sprinter Maddie Rusch. For the men, breaststroker Peter Kropp and Olympic Trials semifinalist Michael Miller both figure to score big points.

“Having to cancel the FSU meet, everybody’s been chomping at the bit to start competing, but we had most of our athletes returning, those that were at NCAAs,” Duke head coach Dan Colella said. “It’s a group that has grown considerably, even in the offseason. The attitude and culture seems to be even at a higher level than it was last year. Then you inject the new freshman class and you’ve got some ingredients for some successful swimming and diving this year.”

Also competing in Christiansburg will be West Virginia, which just wrapped up first place in the Big-12 vs. Big East weekend, and William & Mary, which cruised over Georgetown and Johns Hopkins in its season opener Oct. 7.

North Carolina at Tennessee, Friday 4 p.m. & Saturday 10 a.m.

The Tar Heels opened up their season at home against Georgia, and things will not be getting much easier when the team ventures five hours on I-40 to Knoxville this weekend to face Tennessee in the Volunteers’ first dual meet of the season. After inspired performances at both the ACC and NCAA Championships a season ago, UNC lost a huge senior class to graduation but returns standouts Hellen Moffitt and Caroline Baldwin on the women’s side.

South African breaststroker Craig Emslie and Australian freestyler Jordan Merrilees were both big boosts for the Tar Heels against Georgia two weeks ago, and their diving program remains a force, with Elissa Dawson and Jack Nyquist leading the way.

But Tennessee will be tough to beat, especially at home, as the women finished 13th at the NCAA Championships last year and the men seventh. NCAA runner-up breaststroker Peter John Stevens returns, as do versatile Sam McHugh and long distance man David Heron. For the Tennessee women, it will be interesting to see how big an impact stud freshman Meghan Small has right away. Kira Toussiant returns after finaling in the 100 back at NCAAs last year and leading the Lady Vol relays all season.

Pittsburgh at Virginia, Friday 1 p.m.

The Cavaliers are back in action for the first time this season, and that means the beginning of Leah Smith’s senior campaign. Smith, the NCAA champion in both the 500 and 1650 each of the past two years, will be competing for the first time since returning from the Rio Olympics with a relay gold medal and an individual bronze.

But Smith is not the only piece of this Cavalier women’s team worth watching. Even after the graduation of Courtney Bartholomew, Virginia will be favored to earn a tenth-straight ACC title and a fourth in four seasons for head coach Augie Busch. Virginia also brings back Laura Simon, an NCAA finalist in the 100 breast, as well as the IMer/flyer Kaitlyn Jones, freestyler Megan Maroney and sprinter Ellen Thomas.

The Cavalier men lose their star, breaststroker Yannick Kaeser, but they return Zach Kong after he qualified for NCAAs as a freshman.

The Pitt Panthers, meanwhile, will head down to Charlottesville after opening up their season in a tri-meet with Boston College and Georgia Tech. The Pitt women swept those two teams, while their men fell to GT and beat BC. Amanda RicheyValerie Daigneault and Kinga Cichowska all stood out on the women’s side in Chestnut Hill two weeks ago, and seniors Enrique Machado and Zach Lierley each won events as well. Pitt head coach John Hargis is in his first season coaching the program.

Wisconsin at NC State, Friday 4 p.m. & Saturday 10 a.m.

The high-powered NC State men open their season this weekend as they play host to Whitney Hite’s Wisconsin Badgers. The Wolfpack have won two consecutive ACC championships and finished fourth at the NCAA level a season ago, and they should pick up where they left off even with the loss of sprinter Simonas Bilis to graduation.

Having three returning Olympians helps. Ryan Held will be competing this weekend for the first time since swimming the third leg of the U.S. gold medal-winning 400 free relay in Rio. Two of his teammates, Soren Dahl and Anton Ipsen, represented Denmark in Rio. With breaststroker Derek Hren, distance swimmer Adam Linker, backstrokers Andreas Schiellerup and Hennessey Stuart and solid veteran sprinter Joe Bonk, this team will again be really, really good.

NC State’s women could face a challenge from the Badgers, but sprint points add up quickly in a college dual meet, and NC State will have a lot of those. Senior Alexia Zevnik led the Wolfpack to a ninth-place finish at NCAAs last year, and she will have Courtney CaldwellKrista Duffield and Natalie Labonge on her side.

The Badger women, meanwhile, will be strongest in the mid-distance and distance freestyles, which are highlighted by Olympian Cierra Runge and senior Danielle Valley. Seniors will likewise be key for the Wisconsin men while in Raleigh as big performances from Matt HutchinsBrett Pinfold and Harrison Tran will be critical.

Other Meets

  • Notre Dame & Emory at Georgia Tech, Friday 1 p.m.
  • Xavier at Louisville, Friday 1 p.m.
  • Boston College at Bridgewater State, Friday TBD
  • Clemson (women’s diving) at UNC-Wilmington, Friday TBD; at East Carolina, Saturday TBD