The Middlebury men’s swim and dive team competed in the NESCAC championships at Wesleyan this past weekend, Feb. 22-24, finishing fifth in a fast field of 11 teams. Ian Mackay ’14 set the tone for the Panthers throughout the weekend, winning two individual titles with conference-record performances.
“I’m ecstatic,” said head coach Bob Rueppel. “We rang the bell. I had a good feeling going in, but to be honest with you, they just exceeded my expectations. They all bought in and every guy was just pure passion.”
Leading off the first day of competition, Mackay won both the 50-yard freestyle and the 50-yard butterfly. Mackay’s time of 21.97 seconds in the butterfly final tied the conference record, while his 20.34 in the freestyle prelims smashed the previous meet record. Mackay also earned NCAA automatic ‘A’ cuts with both swims.
“For [Mackay] to go ahead and win two events, he was just a beast,” said Rueppel. “That helped a lot. The guys knew we had arguably the fastest guy in the meet taking us in. His domination, to win the 50 free by half a second – you just don’t do that.”
The 200-yard freestyle relay of Mackay, Bryan Cheuk ’16, James Wing ’15 and Ethan Litman ’13 finished fourth in 1:23.32, good enough for an NCAA provisional “B” cut.
“What was lacking was we didn’t have a go-to guy last year,” said Rueppel. “My dream was if we can light up the 200 free relay it’s just going to carry through the meet. Our C and B relays swam great and everybody was excited, then Ian [Mackay] jumps in and swims 20.5 and it was incredible.”
Stephan Koenigsberger ’16 finished second in the 50-yard breaststroke for the Panthers before returning with Carter Pribis ’16, Mackay and Litman to finish fourth in the 400-yard medley relay in 3:25.43 and earn a “B” cut. Litman also finished seventh in the 50-yard freestyle on the first day.
Mackay swam eight times on the opening Friday of competition, playing a part in 168 of the Panthers’ 390.5 points which had them running in third after day one, trailing only Amherst and Williams.
“Friday morning we knew it was a big session for us because we had a few guys doubling in 50s so we had a few more swims,” said Rueppel. “We knew we had to be good that day.”
Returning for the second day of competition on Saturday Feb. 23, the 200-yard medley relay of Pribis, Koenigsberger, Mackay and Cheuk finished fourth and earned another NCAA “B” cut. Mackay returned to the podium with a third-place finish in the 100-yard butterfly, earning his third “A” cut of the meet in 48.80 seconds. Lucas Avidan ’15 cut over 27 seconds off his seed time in the 1000-yard freestyle to finish seventh. Koenigsberger was fifth in the 100-yard breaststroke for the Panthers.
“The depth of the [NESCAC] meet, just like the girls, was incredible,” said Rueppel. “You can only be the best if you’re around the best.”
By Saturday night, Middlebury had been passed by Connecticut College and Tufts and fallen to fifth in the team scoring.
“I knew Friday when we were third it was going to be difficult to hold onto that,” said Rueppel. “But the guys just kept battling every session. By Saturday we had already passed our point total from last year. We were within 100 points of the teams from a couple of years ago when they had [three-time NCAA champion John Dillon ’11], but we did it with 17 or 18 guys swimming at night instead of six or seven.”
The men suffered a setback on the final day of competition when the 400-yard freestyle relay was disqualified during prelims for an early leadoff. Despite this, Avidan earned a ninth-place finish in the 1,650-yard freestyle and Koenigsberger was 13th in the 200-yard breaststroke, both with season bests. Skylar Dallmeyer-Drennen ’14 was eighth in the three-meter diving event to round out the scoring for the Panthers.
“Sunday night after the disappointment in the morning of the relay disqualification, we came into finals and everybody got up and raced and were cheering, just scrapping,” said Rueppel. “There was just no quit, and it was a total team effort.”
Middlebury finished with 904.5 points, good for fifth place overall. The team finish was a huge improvement for the men from last year’s 643-point, seventh-place NESCAC final.
“They were focused and very emotionally invested, and I think that’s what the big difference was,” said Rueppel. “I can claim it was the training, and that’s part of it, they committed to the training but that last element they put together was just perfect. There was no fear. They weren’t worried about how fast Williams was or Amherst was, no intimidation, and they swam that way.”
Williams won their tenth consecutive men’s conference team title with 1936.5 points, outpacing second-place Amherst by a 112-point final margin.
In addition to the high conference finishes, the Middlebury men earned a slew of NCAA cuts – both automatic and provisional – and await the final championship invitations.
“It’s the most competitive it’s ever been,” said Rueppel. “It’s unbelievable the times it’s taking to go. In the men’s 100 butterfly there were 21 automatic cuts. I don’t think I’ve ever seen that in almost 20 years.”
For the majority of the men, however, the NESCAC meet marked the end of the season. For the team’s three seniors, it also concludes an up-and-down career which has seen the team go from fourth to seventh back to fifth over the past three seasons.
“What made it so satisfying was seeing so many guys get the experience to swim, and the majority of them were underclassmen,” said Rueppel. “The experience of that is just going to help.”
According to Rueppel, the men hope to benefit from this year’s strong finish as they build their program for future success.
“This year’s team had blind faith,” he said. “Now they’re going to be able to turn around with that attitude next year, which is going to help us more and more.”
For the members of the team who have qualified for Nationals, they will continue to train until the meet which will be in Woodlands, Texas from March 20 – 23.