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Jan. 15, 2016

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CHARLOTTESVILLE — In 2013-14, the University of Virginia men’s swimming & diving team, which had won the previous six ACC titles, finished fourth at the conference meet.

Another precipitous drop followed in 2014-15. After a tumultuous regular season in which five swimmers were suspended for the fall semester, the Cavaliers placed eighth at the ACC meet. They lacked depth and leadership, and the talent level in the program had dipped noticeably.

“It was tough,” recalled Austin Quinn, a junior from Chagrin Falls, Ohio.

The contrast between the success of the women’s team at UVA and the men’s struggles was striking. The women won their eighth consecutive ACC title last year and finished a program-best fifth at the NCAA championships.

The gap has started to close. Still, there remains a noticeable disparity between the two programs, not only in talent, but “in terms of mindset and confidence and approach,” said Augie Busch, who’s in his third year as head coach of both teams.

“But a lot of that comes with achievement and consistency, and consistent leadership. That’s been challenging at times. But more than anything it’s made us believe that what’s happening with the women, it’s just a matter of time before it happens on the men’s side.”

Team captains Eric Holden and Matt Lockman are among those providing strong leadership this season, Busch said, and there’s a growing sense of optimism in the men’s program.

“There’s a lot of young guys, and our best swimmers are probably are our younger guys, with the exception of a couple like Austin and, obviously, [senior] Yannick [Kaeser],” Busch said. “And that’s exciting. Because every guy, as much as you want them to stay in the now, they start dreaming about what the future holds. So that’s fun to be around.”

The Virginia women, led by two-time NCAA champion Leah Smith, are ranked No. 3 nationally. The men are No. 21. Each will compete Friday night and Saturday against Virginia Tech and Towson in Christiansburg.

“Obviously what you do in times of adversity shows what kind of a team you have, and I think that we responded really well [after last season],” Quinn said. “We didn’t look at it as, `Oh, this is the demise of the men’s team.’ We looked at it as a lot of opportunities for other people to step up and rise to the occasion.

“Augie always tells us not to worry about the past. Whether you had a good swim, bad swim, whether it was a good year, bad year, all you can do is focus on what you’re doing moving forward and use any kind of momentum you can get to help yourself moving forward.”

That the women are so far ahead of the men could be awkward at times, Quinn said, “but no one really talks about it like that. The girls are really humble. There’s no pity or anything like that coming from the women’s side, no resentment at all from the men’s side. We’re all just pushing each other to become the best we can.”

Indeed, Busch said, the men’s and women’s teams at Virginia are exceptionally close, which is not the case at every school.

“I think it’s a feather in our cap that our men and our women have such support for each other,” Busch said. “You look no further than when we’re at a meet. We’re so much more into what’s going on in the meet and what [other Cavaliers] are doing and how they’re swimming.”

On the other side of the pool deck, Busch said, Virginia’s opponents usually “don’t have 20 percent of it. And not just at our home. It was the same way at the Georgia Invite. It was same way at Michigan. We’re buying into that ideal now. You ask a kid, `Does it make a difference when someone’s really in to what’s going on with you and cheering for you and really supporting you?’ The answer is, `Absolutely, it makes a huge difference.’ “

Quinn said: “I think it really helps us a lot. You have twice as many people cheering for you during races, and it’s a great training environment.”

The Virginia men are coming off a 182.5-170.5 victory over ACC rival Notre Dame in a dual meet at the Aquatic and Fitness Center last weekend. Quinn won three individual events — the 200-yard individual medley, 200 backstroke and 200 freestyle — and helped the Cavaliers capture the 200 medley relay.

“We’ve been making a lot of great strides this season,” Quinn said, “and we were really glad to start off this new year [with a victory] leading us into the next two weekends of racing.”

Virginia will compete next weekend in Raleigh (against NC State) and Chapel Hill (against North Carolina). Starting Friday in Christiansburg, Busch said, “This is going to be a whole different ball game.

“Last weekend we had the advantages of Senior Day, we had emotions in the stands, it was the first time we’d raced in a while. We knew Notre Dame was going through adversity, especially on their men’s side. This is going to be a much, much different challenge, especially over the next two weeks.”

Still, he has no doubt the men’s program is on the rise. Busch is especially pumped about the recruiting class that signed with the Cavaliers in November. Its members include Quinn’s brother, Jason, a senior at Chagrin Falls High School.

“It’s a really good class,” Busch said. “It kind of superseded expectations.”

His goal is for both Virginia teams to annually contend for championships, and the incoming men’s class bought into that vision.

“You sold belief in the future,” Busch said. “We weren’t selling results.”

The results will come, the Cavaliers are convinced, though it’s likely to be a gradual process.

“We have a great class coming in,” Austin Quinn said, “and we have a lot of really good young guys [already in the program], first-and second-years, and great leadership from the third- and fourth-years. So we’re really excited moving forward.”

To be part of such a rebuilding project is “a really unique opportunity,” said Quinn, an economics major.

Quinn said he’s eager to help the team “carry the momentum we’ve been starting to build forward, and teaching the younger guys just about the way we do things and where we’re going. And it’s actually going to be really cool having my younger brother here next year on the team. I’ll show him the ways, show him what we’re about, and I can’t wait to see what this team’s going to be like in the coming years.”

Busch said he’s seen Quinn grow not only into one of Virginia’s top swimmers, but also a team leader.

“Austin’s got a personality where he’s not shy,” Busch said. “He puts himself out there. He can be emotional. He’ll speak from the heart.”

His UVA experience, Quinn said, has “exceeded all my expectations. It’s everything I could have ever wanted.”

It hasn’t unfolded, though, as he might have predicted as a high school senior. When Quinn signed his letter-of-intent, Mark Bernadino was the Wahoos’ head coach, and Busch’s training philosophy differs significantly from that of his predecessor.

“Austin comes from a background that is heavy, heavy, heavy yardage and volume,” Busch said, “and just having been with those people in the past, it’s challenging with the style that I bring. It’s challenging for those people to kind of wrap their head around that sort of change.”

Busch laughed. “Austin signed up for Mark Bernardino’s style, that’s for sure, because that’s exactly the style from which he came as a club swimmer, just about the heaviest volume you get. I think he’ll admit to not having full belief, maybe, or just having difficulty with that sort of change.”

Quinn said: “It’s been a difficult adjustment, but I think I really hit my stride last year. My first year was tough, never having done any running, any lifting, any dry-land [work] coming in. But those have been things that have all helped me.”

Busch and assistant coaches Clif Robbins and Cory Chitwood have “been very good at trying to help me through the transition period,” Quinn said, “and I think we’re really hitting our stride now.”

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