By Jeff White
CHARLOTTESVILLE — The UVa men dominate ACC swimming and diving, and the women’s team has been nearly as successful in the conference.
Balance, however, has not been the Cavaliers’ trademark in this sport. They’ve won because of their prowess in swimming, not in diving.
At the ACC women’s meet in February, UVa totaled 848 points, well ahead of runner-up North Carolina (602.5). None of the Wahoos’ points came from diving.
Virginia amassed 832 points to win the ACC men’s title a week later. Divers contributed 25 of those points.
“You have to have to some strength in diving. We have not,” said Mark Bernardino, longtime coach of the swimming teams at his alma mater.
“We need to get to where we’re scoring 80 points in diving or 100 points in diving, and that’s what we’re hoping Rich can do.”
That would be Rich MacDonald, whom Bernardino hired in early August to coach UVa’s diving teams. MacDonald had held a similar post for nine seasons at East Carolina University.
“I was very happy there, very comfortable there,” MacDonald said. “But I think you get to a point in your life — I’m 35 — where you need to look for challenges, and I don’t think I was being challenged enough at East Carolina.”
In 2009, Virginia finished ninth at the NCAA men’s swimming-and-diving championships — its best showing ever — and 12th at the women’s meet.
At UVa, MacDonald said, “I think I have a better chance to reach my goals, which is taking divers to the NCAA meet every year and having scoring divers.”
For the Cavaliers, the 2009-10 season begins Friday afternoon at the Aquatic and Fitness Center. Perennial NCAA power Florida is in town for men’s and women’s dual meets.
Virginia’s roster includes five male divers: senior Alex D’Ambrosio, juniors James Barnett and Nathan Parker, sophomore Briggy Imbriglia and freshman Kevin Moore.
The women’s diving team consists of first-year Anna Peck and second-year Sarah Andrekovich.
“I think I inherited a pretty sound men’s team,” MacDonald said. “The women’s team, just in terms of sheer numbers and athletic ability, is not to the level I’d like.”
Eventually, MacDonald said, he hopes to have four or five men and an equal number of female divers.
Given the state of UVa’s diving program, it’s not surprising to what the new coach has been devoting much of his energy.
“Recruiting right now is my No. 1 challenge, my No. 1 focus,” said MacDonald, a graduate of the University of Rhode Island who coached at his alma mater from 1997 to 2000.
His sales pitch is straightforward: Help build a successful diving program at a school that’s proven it can win in swimming.
For evidence of UVa’s commitment, prospects need only to look in the Aquatic and Fitness Center, where a new 5-meter diving platform stands. Previously, Virginia had only 1- and 3-meter springboards for practices and meets.
“It helps tremendously,” MacDonald said of the facility upgrade. “The platform is a scoring event in our conference.”
ECU’s athletics director is Terry Holland, whose ties to UVa are extensive. MacDonald said he met with Holland before accepting Bernardino’s offer.
“He was upset that I was leaving East Carolina, but he thought it was a very good career move for me,” MacDonald said, “and he said he’d support me any way he could with the transition.”
And so MacDonald, who grew up in Fort Washington, Pa., landed in Virginia, at a school that never has had a diver, male or female, qualify for the NCAA championship meet.
“The bar can only go higher,” he said.