By Jeff White
CHARLOTTESVILLE — Four days after the unthinkable occurred — the UVa men’s swimming and diving team lost an ACC dual meet — Mark Bernardino’s cell phone rang. It was Matt McLean, calling from California. He wasn’t happy.
“He wanted to know what the heck went wrong,” said Bernardino, the longtime coach of the ACC’s premier men’s and women’s swimming programs.
Had Bernardino asked him to, McLean, the reigning NCAA champion in the 500 freestyle, might have crossed the country to deliver a pep talk to the current Cavaliers. That’s how invested Bernardino’s former swimmers remain in the program, and it speaks to how upset they were to learn about Virginia’s 166-134 loss to North Carolina on Jan. 28 in Chapel Hill.
For the Wahoos, the loss was only their second in an ACC men’s dual meet in more than a decade. On the bus ride home, Bernardino said, he received about “15 e-mails saying, ‘We’re not allowed to lose! What’s going on?’ “
Bernardino’s male swimmers know the alumni aren’t happy, and they understand why.
“It’s definitely been a bumpy road so far, to say the least,” sophomore Brad Phillips said. “It’s taken longer this year to find our team identity.”
Some growing pains were expected. From a team that last winter won its fourth consecutive ACC men’s title, Virginia lost, among others, McLean and Scot Robison, two of the greatest swimmers in school history.
Still, Bernardino said, “I thought the men would be a little bit better than they’ve proven to be. I was aware that they might not be as good a dual-meet team. I don’t think that was a secret to me or to anybody in the swimming community. I thought we would see some performances out of our upper class that reflected their emergence as leaders on a daily and a weekly basis, but we haven’t gotten to that point yet. We’ve struggled. We’ve been up and down.”
Dual-meet success, Bernardino knows, does not guarantee an ACC title. The Cavaliers were reminded of that in 2007, when they won all of their ACC dual meets, only to fall at the conference meet.
“To be a really, really good dual-meet team, you need five or six good swimmers,” Bernardino said. “To be a really good championship team, you need 15 to 18 good swimmers.
“That’s probably one of the really big differences between the men’s team and the women’s team this year. Hopefully we’re built more as a championship team [on the men’s side]. You lose Scot and Matt, that’s five or six wins out the door, automatic wins [in a dual meet].”
And so, Bernardino said, “I’m not ready to jump off the bridge or to push a panic button or anything like that at all. I have total faith in this team come the [ACC] championship meet. I completely believe that they have what it takes, that they will do their very, very best swimming under the pressures and under the excitement of a championship format.”
The UVa men, ranked No. 15 nationally, rebounded from the loss to UNC to whip Pittsburgh 162-130 last weekend in Charlottesville. The Virginia men’s and women’s teams host NC State on Saturday in the final dual meet of the season. Diving events will start at 9:30 a.m. and swimming events at 11 a.m. at the Aquatic and Fitness Center.
The Wolfpack men are ranked No. 23 and are coming off a dual-meet win over North Carolina. NC State’s women aren’t ranked, and they’ll be facing a powerful UVa team.
The 11th-ranked Virginia women have followed a different path than the men this season. Despite having had to replace what Bernardino called a “Hall of Fame class,” the ‘Hoos are unbeaten in ACC dual meets and will be favored to capture their fifth straight conference title this month in Christiansburg.
“They’re a very resilient, very tough, very together team,” Bernardino said. “As difficult a transition as it was in the beginning, to go from that team of seniors a year ago whose personality and whose talents dominated our program, this group has done a really, really nice job of allowing the first-years the space to grow, the room to improve and the ability to mesh well with the returners.”
Seniors Kelly Flynn and Erika Stewart “as captains have done a really nice job of leading the group and of helping the team feel as though they’re a cohesive unit with their own identity,” Bernardino said. “And that was probably the most important thing: for the team of 2012 to know they’re the team of 2012 and nobody else.”
Other standouts include juniors Christine Olson, Meredith Cavalier and Lauren Perdue, the ACC swimmer of the year in 2011; and sophomores Charlotte Clark, Caroline Kenney and Rachel Naurath.
On the men’s side, Bernardino singled out sophomore swimmers Jan Daniec, Taylor Grey and Phillips, and senior diver Briggy Imbriglia.
“I’ve seen a positive movement forward in our diving this year,” Bernardino said. “I think that needs to be noted, that our divers have really progressed in a very, very positive manner, and I think a big part of that is Briggy.”
In the freshman class, Bernardino said, swimmers David Ingraham and Kyle Dudzinski and diver JB Kolod have distinguished themselves.
Grey said: “Our first-years, I think, have come a long way from the beginning of the year.”
Like his coach, Phillips remains optimistic about the Cavaliers’ postseason prospects. In the dual meets against Duke and UNC, Phillips said, “we really took a few very big steps toward coming together as a team, to taking ownership and realizing that this is our team and this is our legacy that we’re going to leave behind.
“It was definitely an embarrassment losing to Carolina. It’s something that is not sitting well with us, don’t get me wrong, and it’s been eating at us for the past four days, and we can’t wait to get a second shot at ACCs. But we really rallied around each other. We found ourselves in a big hole after the first half of the meet, and we had to step up as a team together and gain momentum.”
Grey said: “We’re just building up to a really exciting point in the season.”
The ACC men’s championships are Feb. 22-25 in Christiansburg. This is Bernardino’s 34th season as head coach at his alma mater, and the members of his men’s team “know the tradition, and they want to be part of the tradition,” he said.
“You have seniors that don’t want to leave here and look up at that championship board and say, ‘Oh, my gosh, 2012 isn’t up there.’ The ones from ’07 look up there, and they constantly say when they come back, ‘We messed up.’ They feel it in their hearts. They want to know that they’ve done everything they can to keep that level of excellence and tradition of winning alive.”