By Jeff White
CHARLOTTESVILLE — Nothing has come easily this season for the UVa men’s swimming and diving team, which last month lost an ACC dual meet for only the second time in more than a decade.
It was only fitting, then, that the Cavaliers struggled at times during the ACC championships in Christiansburg. Virginia had two individual swimmers and a relay team disqualified in races during the meet, losing at least 50 points in the process. Not until the final race ended Saturday night were the Wahoos assured of victory.
“It was a microcosm of our entire season,” UVa coach Mark Bernardino said. “It’s just been an up-and-down, yo-yo kind of a year.”
Ultimately, though, the ‘Hoos found a way to win, as they so often have in Bernardino’s 34 years as head coach at his alma mater. When the four-day meet ended Saturday night, UVa had 626.5 points, to 594.5 for runner-up Virginia Tech and 564 for third-place North Carolina.
UNC had whipped Virginia 166-134 in a Jan. 28 dual meet in Chapel Hill.
“This is a team that does not have as much God-given talent as some of the teams that have preceded it, and this group doesn’t possess as many athletes with as intense an inner drive as we’ve had the past couple of years,” Bernardino said Monday.
“This has been a very challenging group of men to coach. In the end, fortunately, it all worked out, and they were able to emerge victorious and have the feel of what it’s like to be a championship team.”
The victory made UVa the first school to sweep the ACC men’s and women’s titles in this sport in five consecutive years. Virginia’s women were crowned Feb. 18 after a dominating performance in Christiansburg.
The ‘Hoos, with 848 points, crushed runner-up UNC (615) and third-place Florida State (460).
“Boy, they had clear sailing,” Bernardino said of his female swimmers. “When we got six athletes into the final eight of the 200 IM, that broke the meet open, and it allowed our kids to swim pressure-free, whereas the men swam intensely pressured the whole way. I think sometimes it’s easier to swim fast when you’re in a pressure-free situation.”
Standouts for the women’s team, which has only three seniors, included redshirt freshman Megan Fox (a transfer from Arizona State), freshmen Sarah White and Ellen Williamson, and sophomore Charlotte Clarke.
“For young kids, they were really, really good,” Bernardino said. “And then we had very solid performances from some of our veterans — [senior] Kelly Flynn, [junior] Christine Olson, [senior] Erika Stewart. They were all very, very solid.”
And then, of course, there was Lauren Perdue, the ACC freshman of the year in 2010 and ACC swimmer of the year in 2011. In Christiansburg, Perdue won the 100 freestyle and swam on all four of Virginia’s victorious relay teams. The junior from Greenville, N.C., accomplished all that despite the injuries that have hindered her all season.
“It gave an emotional and a mental lift to the team that you can’t measure, to have her there,” Bernardino said. “To turn around and say, ‘Wow, look who’s anchoring our relay,’ that just makes everybody in front of you that much better.”
The NCAA women’s championships are March 15-17 in Auburn, Ala., and Perdue’s status for that meet is uncertain, Bernardino said Monday. If she doesn’t compete again for the Cavaliers this season, she went out on a memorable note at the ACC meet.
“For somebody who has been able to train only at 30 to 50 percent maximum effort, and since July has done probably only 60 percent of the total training she’s used to doing, her contribution was huge,” Bernardino said. “She’s still ranked very, very highly despite the [injuries]. It’s pretty impressive. It’s pretty courageous.”
The ACC title was the UVa women’s 10th during Bernardino’s tenure. The UVa men have won 15 ACC championships under Bernardino. That ties him with former NC State coach Don Easterling for the conference record.
“It’s a significant victory to me,” Bernardino said, “because as a young coach, as a coach who was growing in the profession, the guy that mentored me, the man I would call on a bi-monthly basis for advice and help and to grow with and learn from, was Don Easterling. He always shared thoughts with me. He shared philosophy with me. He was always willing to teach me and guide me and help me be the best coach I could be.
“He’s always been there for me as a mentor, but most importantly as a really good friend and a good human being. It’s nice to share something with him that significant.”
At the ACC meet, Bernardino said, these swimmers — seniors Peter Geissinger and David Karasek, juniors Tom Barrett, Brady Fox, Matt Houser and Matt Murray, sophomores Parker Camp and Taylor Grey, and freshman David Ingraham — “were the guys that we clearly leaned on the most.”
Bernadino also singled out the two divers who competed for UVa at the meet: senior Briggy Imbriglia and freshman JB Kolod. “They did a wonderful job scoring the most points we’ve had in diving in quite some time.”
The ACC men’s title was UVa’s 13th in the past 14 years.
“For the team of 2012, I think they’ll always remember that they had to overcome adversity to win,” Bernardino said. “And I think that’s important for them to have as a life lesson, that even when you’re not at your best, even when you face difficult times, even when you’re challenged by things that are out of your control, you can still overcome that adversity.”
“They created a lot of their own adversity,” he said. “That’s the real truth, that they created their own monster, but at the same time they worked their way through it. And I guess if in life they come up against a situation where they’re challenged and they face a tough time, they’ll have this to look back on and remember, and hopefully it’ll encourage them to get through tough times.”
A year ago, when the ACC championships were held in Atlanta, the roles were reversed for UVa’s teams. The men romped, and the women prevailed by a narrow margin.
“We like to think we’re trained for that last day,” Bernardino said. “We’re trained for the long haul, and we’re prepared for the long haul physically. It’s held true these last couple of years.”