January 24, 2007

M. Swimming Aims for History

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Question: When was the last year that the men’s swimming and diving team went undefeated and won the EISL dual-meet championship?

Answer: Trick question — it’s never happened. But that’s exactly what the Red (9-0 EISL) are poised to do on Friday at 4 p.m. in Teagle Pool against Columbia.

In fact, the only team in the Ancient Eight ever to have accomplished this feat was the 1970-71 Penn squad. This year the Red, which joined the league in 1954, has the chance to go down in EISL history — a history that has long been dominated by one or two powerhouse Ivy programs.

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Excepting three seasons during World War II, Yale alone owned the title from 1939 to 1961. Since the Quakers’ outstanding 1970-71 campaign, Harvard and Princeton have dominated the league for 35 years straight. In this period, the Crimson and the Tigers have shared the title with Yale twice, Columbia twice, and the Red just once in 1983-84.

“This is the best team I’ve ever coached, no question,” said head coach Joe Lucia, who is in his 20th year with the Red. “It could very well be the best team in Cornell history.”

But making history is something the men have already been doing all season.

No team in the EISL has ever beaten Harvard, Princeton and Yale in the same year — an accomplishment that the men have already checked off their to-do list. In addition, the Red’s 170-130 win over the Bulldogs on Jan. 13 was the first time it ever captured a victory over the Bulldogs on the road.

“I knew the guys were good, but I didn’t know just how good they were until they responded to the challenge that Yale presented us,” Lucia said.

“Going into Yale, we knew that we had just them and Columbia standing in our way,” said senior co-captain Brad Newman. “We were excited for Yale, but we were anxious and nervous too. We knew we could win if we all swam well. Once we won, the whole team just got excited. We’re undefeated — that just started to sink in. Everything was right in our face and it’s so close now.”

The men have been making Cornell history by breaking school and pool records seemingly every meet. To date, new school records have been set by senior Dave McKechnie in the 100 breast (55.12) and by senior co-captain Mike Smit in the 400 IM (3:56.88).

Furthermore, nine new pool records have been set by seven swimmers.

Upon completing the season, this year’s seniors will be the class of Cornellians with the most wins over a four-year period. It is to this class, as well as to sheer luck, that Lucia mostly attributes the season’s success.

“The seniors’ leadership has rubbed off on every class,” Lucia said. “They’ve really listened to what we try to teach them about the sport and about racing and they’ve been tough on a consistent basis. A lot of things have just gone right for us. We raced against Harvard and Princeton at home, which was a big boost.”

Things have fallen into place for the Red since the beginning of the season, at which point Lucia would have called it “a long shot” for his team to win the dual-meet championship. Still, only one obstacle remains: Columbia.

Princeton edged out Columbia by just four points last week. The Lions have also lost to the Crimson and the Bulldogs, but by narrow margins each time. It would only take one outstanding effort to ruin the Red’s perfect season. Considering the heated rivalry between the Lions and the Red, Columbia is desperate for a victory.

“I guess you could call it added drama,” Newman said. “When I was a freshman, Columbia beat us in our home pool. Sophomore year, we swam against them at home again and beat them. Last year, they were poised to tie for the championship, but we took that away from them.”

The Red stunned the Lions as they snatched away the victory in — literally — the last fraction of a second. In that epic meet, Columbia went 1-2-3 in the first two events of the afternoon.

The Red showed its grit, however, when senior co-captain Mike Smit came from behind to touch the wall first in the last leg of the meet-ending 400 free relay to seize victory for Cornell.

“Columbia thought they had the championship sewn up, and I don’t think they expected us to beat them,” Newman said. “It was an emotional upset. We’re expecting them to want to get back at us.”

“That was probably one of the best meets I can remember,” Smit said. “They matched up with us really well.”

Lucia anticipates that the Lions will match up well for the Red again this year, citing diving in particular as a competitive event in which senior Luke Baer and sophomore Chris Donohoe have the task of challenging Columbia junior Justin Reardon.

However daunting the Lions and their personal vendetta may be, the Red is willing to pour every ounce of effort it has into being crowned EISL dual-meet champions.

“It’s the perfect way to end four years here,” Newman said. “Since we were freshman, we’ve been improving every year. Now we have the chance to go 10-0 and win the [EISL] championship. Having this cap off our last year, it’s amazing.”