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Feb. 27, 2013

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CHARLOTTESVILLE — For UVa’s counterparts in ACC women’s swimming and diving, these are not the best of times. Not since 2007 has a team other than the Cavaliers won the ACC title, and the end of their reign does not appear imminent.

Virginia annihilated the rest of the field last week at the Greensboro (N.C.) Aquatic Center, piling up 832 points, to 536 for runner-up Virginia Tech. Moreover, coach Mark Bernardino’s team did so with a lineup that included only one senior.

That senior, of course, is no ordinary swimmer. Olympic gold medalist Lauren Perdue was named the ACC meet’s most outstanding swimmer for the third time in her four years Saturday night. Still, Bernardino’s program is loaded with talented underclassmen, which does not bode well for the rest of the ACC.

In Greensboro, freshmen and sophomores accounted for 68 percent of the team points UVa earned in individual events.

In 2011, Virginia’s seniors — Katya Bachrouche, Claire Crippen, Hannah Davis, Amanda Faulkner, Jennings Grant, Kristen Moores, Anne Summer Myers and Liz Shaw — became the first class in program history to graduate with four ACC titles.

“When they left, we had a very nice recruiting class coming in,” Bernardino said, “but we thought that it would take two recruiting classes to replace that one recruiting class. And I think that was a reasonably accurate assessment. But what’s happened in these two recruiting classes — the current first-years and the current second-years — is we’ve had kids emerge who we didn’t realize were going to be as good as quickly as they have become, the Haley Durmers, the Hanne Borgersens, the Sarah Whites.

“I think what’s happened is, the current first- and second-years possess a really, really high work ethic, and those kinds of kids tend to thrive in this program. They came well-prepared, and the current second-year group has really embraced the current first-year group, and I think that’s made a huge difference. There’s a real bond between those two classes that has allowed for things to happen at a faster pace than one might normally expect.”

Perdue is one of six seniors in the women’s program, and many of her classmates have had stellar careers, too. But UVa took only 17 swimmers (and two divers) to Greensboro, and the other seniors “just got beat out,” Bernardino said.

“The first- and second-year class have just gone head-to-head with them and done a great job. The stopwatch doesn’t lie. The other beauty of this sport is the harder you work, the more success you earn, and this group, they came in and they didn’t want to sit on the bench. They came in and wanted to contribute, and they’ve worked really, really hard and done some very, very good things.

“There’s competition day in and day out in the pool, and day in and day out when we compete. We made some really hard decisions. When we made our final squad announcement [for the ACC meet], it was one of the toughest ones I’ve done in a long time, because it involved fourth-years and third-years that have been high producers for the team.”

A freshman whose success has not been unexpected is backstroke specialist Courtney Bartholomew, one of the top recruits in the nation’s Class of 2012. Bartholomew won the 100 and 200 backstroke in Greensboro even though she, like Perdue, had neither shaved down nor fully tapered for the ACC meet.

Bernardino wanted them to peak at the NCAA championships, March 21-23 in Indianapolis, but “we felt very confident that they would be highly competitive in the ACC meet with just some fine-tuning, but not perfect fine-tuning,” he said.

Bartholomew is from Holland, Mich., next to Lake Michigan. Her family has deep roots in the Midwest and no ties to UVa, which wasn’t included on the lists of schools that interested Bartholomew when she began exploring her college options.

In 2011, however, on a spring-break tour of colleges, Bartholomew recalled, her mother suggested they check out UVa while they were in the South. They drove to Charlottesville from Chapel Hill, N.C.

“I did look at UNC,” Bartholomew said, “but it was not my first choice. It was not even close to my first choice. Everyone I met there was wonderful, but it just wasn’t for me.”

In Charlottesville, she got her first look at the Grounds, and fell hard. “It was gorgeous here,” Bartholomew said. “I’d heard it was beautiful, but I wasn’t expecting it to be this pretty.”

It was raining and “just nasty out” when Bartholomew awoke, but she walked from her hotel on West Main Street to the Aquatic & Fitness Center, “and I still thought the campus was beautiful in the rain,” she said.

At the AFC, she met with Bernardino and associate head coach Chip Kline, and “we talked for two hours, I would say,” Bartholomew said. “I just fell in love with the program. And I met [swimmer] Rachel Naurath that day, and she walked in and introduced herself, and I knew that day after two hours that this was where I wanted to go to school.

“They tell you you’re going to know, and I knew right away. The second I walked on Grounds, I knew.”

She committed to UVa in July 2011, becoming the centerpiece of a class that’s determined to extend the program’s astonishing run of success. Having Perdue as a mentor has helped the newcomers, Bartholomew said.

“Lauren is very calm and cool and collected during any situation you see her in, which is nice to have on the team,” Bartholomew said. “As a first-year, if I were to see someone, like an upperclassman, freaking out about an issue, I would probably be like, `Oh, what’s going on?’ I think Lauren and the entire senior class have handled everything that’s been thrown at us really well and very calmly, and they’ve shown us first-years that you can handle every situation with a smile on your face and just keep persevering.”

This is Bernardino’s 35th season as head women’s and men’s coach at his alma mater, and his predictions on how ACC meets will unfold usually turn out to be accurate. He’s 0 for 1 this season, though.

“Never did I anticipate that we would win by this margin of victory,” Bernardino said. “Never. I felt this was going to be the closest women’s meet in the last five years.”

On Thursday, however, in the first two events, UVa placed five swimmers in the finals of the 500-yard freestyle and five in the finals of the 200 IM.

“That just kind of took the air out of the building,” Bernardino said. “And then we swept both events at night, and it was huge.”

Next comes the NCAA championships in Indianapolis, in a pool in which Bartholomew has competed regularly for most of her competitive career. The UVa women’s best finish at NCAAs was seventh, in 1988. They placed 17th last season.

“I’m really excited,” Bartholomew said. “I feel like I got most of my nerves out at ACCs. That 100 backstroke I was a little bit nervous for, just because I had no idea what to expect, and I had no idea what the pressure was like. And I think going to NCAAs will be just a little bit less for me.”

The ACC men’s diving events were held last weekend in Greensboro. The ‘Hoos enter the swimming portion of the meet, which starts today at the same venue, in fourth place. Virginia has 65 points, to 85 for Florida State, 91 for Duke and 138 for Virginia Tech.

The UVa men are seeking their sixth straight ACC title and 14th in 15 seasons.

“It’s gonna be another very intense, very, very close meet,” Bernardino said. “There are probably four teams that could win it, and there’s a fifth team that’s going to have a lot to say about who does win it. I think it’s going to be the closest meet that we’ve seen for men’s swimming in a long, long time.”

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