Men on a mission

Legendary UCLA basketball coach John Wooden once said about national championships, “Winning takes talent, to repeat takes character.” Similarly last weekend, Denison’s celebrated swimming coach Gregg Parini remarked about his team’s defense of its 2011 national men’s title, “Matching last year’s success was important for us, but building on it was more so.”

On Saturday night in Indianapolis, for the second year in a row, the Big Red men’s swimming and diving team won the NCAA Division III National Championship. But this time, race fans, it wasn’t even close.

Last year’s one-point nail-biter victory over Kenyon had the Big Red faithful in attendance crunching numbers right up through the final event of the four-day competition. DU’s opportunity for its first-ever national men’s title hung in the balance with each swimming and diving event as the emotions ebbed and flowed even more than the score itself.

The drama (and stress) created during that meet cannot be understated, and as the numbers were double checked, even triple checked, it became apparent that to take home the 2011 championship trophy, Denison’s 400-yard relay team would need to place no lower than third in the final event on the final night. History was made when the Big Red did come in third, outswimming fourth-place Emory University by 32 one-hundredths of a second.

After four days of the most intense competition, that fraction of a second changed the landscape of college swimming. Denison’s resulting one-point advantage in the final team scores was the slimmest margin of victory ever recorded in any NCAA swimming and diving championship at any level. And because conference-rival Kenyon had won it 31 years in a row, Denison’s win broke the longest national-title winning streak in all of college sports. That’s big stuff.

Clearly, Coach Gregg Parini and his returning Big Red swimmers and divers considered that national title to be more a challenge than a victory.

Fast forward to this year. The story was just as exciting, and it’s even better‚ because the national title was mathematically Denison’s after the 200-yard backstroke. Yes, after the Big Red scored 58 points and placed four swimmers in the top eight in that event, the drama was over and the championship trophy could go the engraver.

Here’s how it went. The 2012 Big Red team returned 11 individuals from last year’s championship squad, and six newcomers were introduced to the pressures of the national meet. And for the first time in 32 years, Kenyon’s Lords were not the favorite.

Denison’s performance over the course of the four days in Indy was calculated and executed with precision. Al Weik, a sophomore from Lebanon, Pa., set the tone for the entire competition in the meet’s first event on Wednesday, posting a new national record in the 500-yard freestyle. Weik would go on to have arguably the best national championship meet for a distance swimmer in Division III history. All three of his national championships (500 free, 1650 free, and 800 free relay) were national record times. He even placed second in the 400-yard individual medley.

Gabe Dixson, a junior from New Albany, Ohio, led a three-man diving contingent that contributed 66 points that went unanswered by Kenyon. Dixson posted the best finish by a male diver in school history by finishing second in the one-meter event and third on the three-meter board.

And if you’re looking for Denison’s pivotal moment, that occurred in Thursday’s final event, the 400-yard medley relay. DU entered Thursday night’s session trailing by 11 points, and entering the evening’s final race, they had cut the deficit to seven.

Senior Robert Barry of Richmond, Va., led off the relay with a national record time of 47.56 in his 100 backstroke split. That start opened the door, and senior anchor Mike Barczak of Beverly Hills, Mich., slammed it, catapulting Denison into a three-point lead at the meet’s midway point and marking the first medley relay national title in Denison men’s swimming history.

With their strongest races on the docket for Friday and Saturday, the writing was on the wall, but the team still had to rise to the occasion. “Backstroke U” has been a moniker bouncing around the team since last season, and that firepower was on full display in the 100 backstroke when Denison occupied four of the top-five positions on the podium.

Barry led the group with a championship while Sean Chabot, a sophomore from Washington, Mich.; Quinn Bartlett, a junior from Berwyn, Pa.; and Barczak followed in positions 3, 4, and 5. Team co-captain Michael DeSantis, a senior from Beverly Hills, Mich., also scored with a sixth-place finish in the consolation heat. The event provided a 61-point swing in the standings and allowed Denison to open up an 81-point lead. By the end of the night that lead had ballooned to 112 points following a record-setting win by the all-sophomore 800-yard freestyle relay team of Chabot, Weik, Spencer Fronk of Greenwood Village, Colo., and Carlos Maciel of Recife, Brazil.

The Big Red’s championship pace continued on the final night of competition, and despite Kenyon’s impressive showing in the 100 freestyle, Denison countered with its knock-out punch in the 200 backstroke event. It resulted in a third national individual title for Barry and clinched the Denison’s second straight national team championship.

Denison finished the meet with six event titles, six new national records, and a ninth National Coach of the Year award for Parini.

After having terminated Kenyon’s championship streak a year ago, the Denison swimmers and divers have officially started a streak of their own. Red is the new purple.

And there’s a fresh national champs banner being printed at this very moment. Kind of a nice way to decorate a brand new aquatics center, yes?

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