By Jeff White
CHARLOTTESVILLE — The program that Mark Bernardino built has produced other top-10 finishes at the NCAA championships — in 1988 and ’99 for the women, in 2003 and ’09 for the men — but his swimming teams made history this season.
For the first time, each of UVa’s teams finished in the top 10 in the same year.
The Cavaliers placed ninth at the NCAA women’s meet last month in West Lafayette, Ind. A week later, the UVa men finished 10th at the NCAAs in Columbus, Ohio.
“I’m really thrilled for the kids,” said Bernardino, who took over as head coach of his alma mater’s swimming teams in August 1978.
“They established that as their goal in the spring of 2009. The men had finished ninth [at the NCAAs], and the women had finished 12th, and I think the women were hellbent on proving that they were as good as the men. I think that motivated them, knowing that their peers, their counterparts, their teammates, had done something they felt they were capable of achieving with a lot of hard work and a lot of focused effort. And they did.”
Both teams also won ACC titles — the men by 149.5 points over runner-up North Carolina, the women by a staggering 235 points over second-place UNC.
UVa’s teams train together for most of the year, and they usually compete in combined dual meets during the regular season. The success of each squad inspires the other.
“Absolutely,” Bernardino said.
For the men, the ACC championship was their third straight and 11th in 12 years. The women’s title was their third in a row and fifth in eight years.
“It was a really good year,” Bernardino said. “We met our big goals of putting both programs in the top 10 and winning conference championships, and a lot of athletes received postseason accolades, either as All-Americans, honorable-mention All-Americans or all-ACC performers.”
Both teams, Bernardino believes, reached their potential.
“We truly believed that for the women, somewhere between eighth and 10th [at the NCAAs] would have been an outstanding season,” he said. “They finished ninth, and if not for a disqualification, they would have been eighth.
“And then for men we felt, again, that eighth to 10th was a realistic and difficult goal to achieve, and I think I should say that for both genders: realistic yet difficult, challenging.”
Expect more success in 2010-11. “We have a very solid nucleus back in each team,” Bernardino said.
“I think that the women will continue to be a team that can challenge to move forward [at the NCAAs]. The men are going to have to have a really successful season to stay where they are or maybe improve by one place.”
The men must replace, among others, John Azar and Eric Olesen, the seniors who scored for UVa at the NCAA championships. Azar swam on four relay teams that scored; Olesen, on three.
For four members of the women’s team — Mei Christensen, Jenna Harris, Kat McDonnell and Jen Narum — the NCAA meet capped their college careers.
“For many teams losing Mei in and of itself would be an absolutely monumental loss,” Bernardino said, “and that will be a monumental loss for us. She’s a two-time ACC swimmer of the year. I don’t know how many times she was a first-team All-American, in both individual events and relays, and just her demeanor and her character and her spirit is a huge loss.”
McDonnell, Harris and Narum made huge contributions, too, so “that’s a pretty significant group of athletes that we’re losing on the women’s side,” Bernardino said.
“Now, I can tell you candidly that we’ve done a really, really good job of recruiting, and we feel we have athletes coming in who are going to close the gap in a hurry on what we lose.”
During the Class of 2010’s time in the program, the ‘Hoos finished 39th nationally in 2007, 20th in ’08 and 12th in ’09 before cracking the top 10 this year.
“So that tells you something about who they were as people and how they were able to be real program-changers for us,” Bernardino said. “So our goal and our mission is obviously going to be to try and do the best job we can to replace their times in the water and hope that our returning athletes can replace their spirit and their leadership.”
Among the standouts back for Bernardino in 2010-11 will be Scot Robison, the most valuable swimmer at the ACC men’s championships, and Lauren Perdue, who won that award at the ACC women’s meet.
At the NCAAs, Robison placed fourth in the 200 free and 12th in the 100 free. The junior from Charlotte, N.C., also swam on three relay teams that finished in the top eight.
Perdue, a freshman from Greenville, N.C., finished fifth in the 50 free, eighth in the 100 free and 14th in the 200 free. She, too, swam on three relay teams that placed in the top eight.
“I feel pretty good that they both really handled their [NCAA] seedings with a high degree of success,” Bernardino said. “In order to get our relay teams to the [NCAA] meet, we had to shave and taper both Lauren and Scot for the conference meet.
“Obviously, we probably could have gotten them as individuals to the [NCAA] meet and sacrificed the relay teams, but we had such strong potential with our relays, we couldn’t sacrifice them so that [Robison and Perdue] could go as individuals and maybe be on their A-plus-plus games at the NCAA meet.
“That’s a call you have to make as a coach, and we felt it was pivotal to maximize our relay scoring opportunities, even if it meant those two athletes were going to feel a lot of fatigue at the meet, because they had a ton of races being on all those relays.”
In West Lafayette, Perdue swam 13 races in three days, Bernardino said. In three days in Columbus, Robison swam 12.
“That’s a load,” Bernardino said. “That’s a huge load.”
Others who’ll be back in 2010-11 include Lauren Smart, Christine Olson and Claire Crippen for the women and Matt McLean, Peter Geissinger and Tom Casey on the men’s side.