By Jeff White
CHARLOTTESVILLE — They are the kings and queens of ACC swimming, and their reigns show no signs of ending.
In a span of eight days last month, UVa was crowned ACC champion in men’s and women’s swimming. So what’s new?
For the men, the title was their third in a row and 11th in 12 years. The women’s championship was their three straight and fifth in eight years.
This marks the seventh time in Mark Bernardino’s illustrious coaching career at UVa that his teams have swept the ACC championships in the same year.
The Cavaliers also doubled up in 1990, ’99, 2003, ’04, ’08 and ’09.
“It’s unusual to do, it’s difficult to do, but it sure makes it feel a whole lot better when you can do it,” Bernardino said Monday.
Such sustained success “means you can say that what we’re doing is working well for an entire program,” said Bernardino, who took over as head coach at his alma mater in August 1978.
“For men, for women, for swimmers who are sprinters, distance people, strokers, it shows that we’ve got a real good formula. The formula for success in the pool, outside the pool, is working, and it’s something hopefully a lot of people will want to be a part of.”
The Wahoos were expected to dominate the ACC women’s meet, held in Chapel Hill, N.C., and they didn’t disappoint. UVa won 14 of 18 swimming events and finished with 877.5 points, to 642.5 for second-place North Carolina.
“We had so many girls that were so good,” Bernardino said. “Fifteen girls are going to NCAAs. Fifteen out of 18 made the national championships, which is the most we’ve ever taken, by far, bar none. It’s a monster number.”
The women’s meet concluded Feb. 20, the men’s a week later. The men’s championships were also held at UNC’s Koury Natatorium, but Bernardino wasn’t as confident heading into this one.
“I knew the men’s was going to be a tougher go,” he said. “I just felt like after the dual meet with North Carolina’s men [during the regular season], I knew they were really on their A game all year long. They were well-prepared, they were focused. They gave us a hell of a shot. They made a hell of a run at us all three days of this meet.”
In the end, though, UNC couldn’t keep up with the ‘Hoos. UVa finished with 806 points, to 656.5 for the Tar Heels.
“I just feel as though we took the best shot they had,” Bernardino said. “They had the best meet they’ve probably had in a decade, and we were still able to pull through this thing and take advantage of our really, really strong depth, up and down the lineup in every single event.”
Junior Scot Robison, the meet’s most valuable swimmer, won the 50, 100 and 200 freestyle. He also helped Virginia win four relays.
“He has been over the top,” Bernardino said in Chapel Hill. “He came of age last year, and I think he is so excited and motivated to be right now somebody that challenges for a spot on the Olympic team. He is full steam ahead. He wants to be somebody special, and I think he’s on his way.”
Robison didn’t do it alone, of course. Others who contributed to UVa’s victory included Matt McLean, Matt Houser, John Azar, Peter Geissinger, Tom Casey, Simon Norstedt, Eric Olesen, Daniel Johnson and Matt Murray.
Johnson, a senior from Concord, N.C., was a revelation, his coach said.
“Daniel, who did not make our scoring or our travel team for his first three years here, was selected captain this year by the guys, just because he’s such a team-first, totally dedicated, hard-working kid,” Bernardino said.
“In his first [ACC] championship meet ever — he waited till his senior year to get his chance — he took third in one event and fourth in the other. Those are the backstroke races. Third in the 200 back, fourth in the 100, with lifetime-best performances, and I thought those were huge performances as well.”
Robison met the standard set a week earlier by the most valuable swimmer in the ACC women’s meet, UVa freshman Lauren Perdue.
Her father, Phil, was an All-American at UVa who won three ACC championships: 100 free in 1978, 50 free in ’79 and 50 free in ’80.
Lauren Perdue won three individual events in Chapel Hill — the 50, 100 and 200 free — and was a member of four relay teams that finished first.
The perception in swimming circles has been that UVa is not a school for sprinters, but Robison and Perdue are changing that.
“They’re bringing another dimension to the program,” Bernardino said. “We’ve really focused on changing the makeup of our team. We’ve really geared up toward really trying to develop and recruit more and better sprinters every year.
“Despite the fact that we always had one or two good ones, we were never four- or five-deep in sprinting talent.”
“For the men, we’re probably three-deep,” Bernardino said. “For the women, we’re four-deep and more for next year.
For the second straight year, Mei Christensen, a senior from Reston, won ACC titles in the 100 and 200 backstroke. Christensen was named most valuable swimmer at the ACC meet in 2009 and, had Perdue not been so brilliant, might have been so honored again.
“Mei was unbelievable,” Bernardino said. “Some people may have said she was the second-most outstanding swimmer in the meet. She was certainly one of the top couple.”
Others who distinguished themselves at UNC, Bernardino said, included Amanda Faulkner, Claire Crippen, Hannah Davis, Kelly Flynn, Lauren Smart and Christine Olson.
“It’s hard to single anyone out,” he said. “When you have that many girls making the national meet, they all came through. They were really, really good.”
The NCAA women’s championships are March 18 to 20 at West Lafayette, Ind. The men’s meet is a week later in Columbus, Ohio. Bernardino won’t know how many swimmers he’s taking to Ohio State until all the conference meets around the country have been completed.
A season ago, the UVa men placed ninth and the women 12th nationally.
This year, Bernardino said, “I think the women are positioned to make a run in the top 10. The men are positioned to be somewhere between 10 and 15, depending on the number of athletes [from UVa] that get selected.”