North Carolina State, Virginia Tech Battle for ACC Title on Final Night

Commentary by David Rieder

GREENSBORO, North Carolina, March 1. WHAT a meet. The past three days in Greensboro have brought one of the fastest men’s ACC meets ever, with meet records falling in seemingly every other event. Individually, Pavel Sankovich has been the star, earning individual wins in the 200 IM, 100 fly, and 100 back with accompanying meet records in all three. Sankovich also led off Florida State’s victorious 400 medley relay on Friday.

However, with the two-time Olympian from Belarus sitting out individual action on Saturday, the focus goes to the team race, where the title is down to two schools: Virginia Tech and North Carolina State. After two days, Virginia Tech held a slim 815.5 to 807.5 lead, with no other school within 130 points. That lead ballooned to 78 when scores from the men’s platform diving event – contested last week at the women’s competition – were added in. Now, it’s down to five events to determine a champion.

The six-time defending champion Virginia Cavaliers will lose their stranglehold on this meet tonight, but they won’t go down without a fight. Seniors Jan Daniec and Brad Phillips are seeded 1-2 in the men’s mile, and it was Daniec who took the title last year. They will be joined in the top heat by teammate Rodney Fentress, while the Hokies should extend their team lead with Michal Szuba and Jake Ores seeded among the top eight. Still, North Carolina State made up some big ground on their seeds here, with Austin Snyder and Adam Linker, both swimming in the first of the two early heats, posting the top two times with just the top heat to go.

NC State’s Stephen Coetzer set an ACC record of 1:40.53 in the 200 back prelims, one of two marks to go down already today in Greensboro, while Virginia’s Luke Papendick joined him under the old record with a 1:50.99. In the team race, Coetzer and teammate Mike Camper are seeded first and fourth, respectively, while Virginia Tech’s Collin Higgins and Robert Owen both got into the final heat as well.

NC State needed huge swims in the 100 free to have a chance at a team win, and they got just that. Simonas Bilis set himself up to challenge Scot Robison’s ACC record of 42.21 with his prelim clocking of 42.25, while he’ll have teammate Jonathan Boffa in lane five and David Williams in lane six. Only the likes of Florida State’s Paul Murray or Notre Dame’s Frank Dyer – each individual event champions already this weekend – can prevent a 1-2-3 finish. Even more importantly, though, five Wolfpack swimmers made the B-final in a must-dominate event for that team.

The 200 breast could be among the most exciting races of the night, as six guys all finished under the 1:56 barrier. Duke’s Hunter Knight, seeking to qualify for his first NCAA Championships in his senior season, qualified first in 1:55.47, but he has Notre Dame’s Zach Stephens seeded on his tail with a 1:55.53. NC State’s Ian Bishop, meanwhile, got into the championship heat by just 0.13, to try to counter the scoring punch of the fourth seed, Virginia Tech’s Harrison Cefalo, but no other Wolfpack swimmers advanced in the event, compared to three other Hokies.

North Carolina’s Ben Colley (1:42.19) and Florida State’s Connor Knight (1:42.46) each finished under the meet record in the men’s 200 fly prelims, but the battle will be in lanes two and three, with NC State’s Christian McCurdy and Virginia Tech’s Morgan Latimer. Like many of his teammates, McCurdy has already had an incredible meet, posting a four second lifetime best with his win in the 400 IM on Friday.

Finally, the 400 free relay will end the meet. NC State should dominate, with the likes of Boffa, Bilis, Williams, and Andreas Schiellerup having won the 200 free relay on Thursday. The ACC record time of 2:51.26 should come under fire, and that was a mark that Virginia set in the Matt McLean/Scot Robison-era. Virginia Tech, meanwhile, will swim from lane six in the final heat.

With all the races accounted for, who will win? Virginia Tech might have an ace in the hole with the added diving points. I was ready to declare the meet over for the past several hours, but then I saw the two milers from NC State post such big swims, and I really don’t feel comfortable picking against a team with so much energy and momentum on their side.

The Wolfpack have been the dominant performers this weekend, but the diving scores from last week count, too. With all of that in mind, I will stick to my earlier guns and predict Virginia Tech to emerge with the ACC Championship trophy when the book on this weekend closes. That will all be decided to night, with one last session of swimming to go at the Greensboro Aquatic Center. A lot of conference meets finish up tonight, but don’t gloss over the ACC. It might be the most exciting of them all.