Virginia begins to defend title

Unbeaten No. 11 women’s swim, dive seeks fifth straight ACC crown beginning tonight in Blacksburg

The No. 11 Virginia women's swimming and diving team can accurately be called a dynasty. Winning eight conference championships, including the last four in a row, during a 14-year span, has set a powerful precedent for future teams to strive to match.

This week, the 2011-12 Cavaliers (8-0, 4-0 ACC) have their long-awaited chance to win a fifth straight conference title as they travel to Blacksburg for the ACC Championships.

"You don't want to get overconfident and get complacent, but it's good to have momentum and be excited and looking forward to racing," said sophomore Caroline Kenney, a key contributor in the distance freestyle events.

As defending champions, the Cavaliers will have a target on their backs from the pair of relay races which kick off the meet today until the 400 freestyle relay, which wraps up the meet Saturday evening. Returning swimmers from last year's squad know the pressure of coming into the meet as one of the favorites and are encouraging their teammates to embrace the added challenge.

"Of course there's always pressure, but honestly, I'm glad that there's a challenge ahead of us," said senior Erika Stewart, a finalist in three events last year. "People [outside of the program] wouldn't hate to see someone else win, but we don't want to let that happen."

As has been the case all season, Virginia will rely on some of its youngest swimmers to produce clutch performances when called upon. Freshmen Alison Haulsee and Ellen Williamson have been particularly valuable additions to replenish the talent pool following the graduation of the first Cavalier class to win four conference championships.

"Our first-year women who have been outstanding all year need to remain outstanding," coach Mark Bernardino said. "They've really exceeded all expectations to this point in time. They've come in and right off the bat, from the get-go, they've carried more than their fair share of the load. To me, that should do nothing but build their confidence and their trust in their training."

Williamson holds the top performances for Virginia this season in the 100 butterfly and 200 individual medley, both of which she produced at the December Georgia Invite. Haulsee has the leading time in the 200 butterfly from the same meet.

The competition the Cavaliers face this week features four teams Virginia has already defeated and six other opponents the squad did not race against during the regular season. Among the collection of teams Virginia has not yet faced, Bernardino pointed to No. 25 Florida State (11-1, 5-0 ACC) and No. 22 Maryland (9-1, 2-1 ACC) as the teams which have historically given the Cavaliers difficulties.

No. 16 North Carolina is expected to be the most troublesome opponent of the quartet of ACC teams which the Cavaliers conquered en route to an undefeated dual meet record. The Tar Heels have more conference titles than any other ACC program with 16 and were the last team to take home the trophy before Virginia's run, with a win in 2007.

The Tar Heels also return with the most points from last year's ACC meet, prompting Bernardino to consider them as the favorite despite the Cavaliers' 170-130 win Jan. 21 at Chapel Hill.

"I remain very impressed with the University of North Carolina," Bernardino said. "I said at the beginning of the year, in my mind, they were the favorites this year. They were the team to beat and I still think they're the team to beat."

With Bernardino tailoring Virginia's training program to enable the swimmers to peak for the championship season, Virginia is now well rested for the rigors which lie ahead.

"We look at all the training that we've done as a background to boost our confidence," Kenney said. "We know we've put in the work so now we're ready to swim fast."

Each individual event includes a qualifying round during one of the morning sessions, as well as a final round the same day to match up the best swimmers from each preliminary heat. Though the dual meet format teams are used to differs from the grind of swimming multiple events on the same day, Virginia experienced a similar format at the highly competitive Georgia Invite.

Two Cavaliers enter the meet as reigning champions in their events. Junior Lauren Perdue was named the Swimmer of the Championships for the second year in a row in 2011 after collecting two individual titles in the 100 and 200 freestyle, as well as contributing to relay wins in the 200, 400 and 800 freestyle. Sophomore Rachel Naurath won the 200 butterfly and also swam in the 800 freestyle relay team.

North Carolina sophomore Stephanie Peacock could be a contender to unseat Perdue as the most valuable swimmer of the meet with her conference-leading times in the 200 and 500 freestyle. Peacock is also seeded fourth in the 1650 freestyle.

Maryland junior Megan Lafferty could also be in the mix with conference-best times in the 50 freestyle and 100 butterfly.

The Cavaliers begin their title defense tonight at 6 p.m. with the 200 medley relay.

"We have a lot of confidence, and we just swim with a lot of heart," Stewart said. "We have talent, but we are all about working hard so I think that'll be good for us"

Published February 15, 2012 in Sports

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