MANSFIELD, TX - Drury powered away from the field to return to its rightful place atop Division II men's swimming, claiming its eighth straight national title as the NCAA-II Swimming and Diving Championships came to a close Saturday night at the Mansfield ISD Natatorium.
It was a bittersweet night for the Panthers, however, as the DU women's squad fell one agonizing point short in a dramatic comeback attempt to try to claim a fourth consecutive national crown.
After trailing by 55 points to Wayne State entering the final day of competition, Drury finished with 496 points, one behind the Warriors (497). In effect, DU lost by six-tenths of a second; trailing by nine points entering the final race, the Panthers needed a victory in the 400 Free Relay and a fourth-place finish or worse by WSU. The Warriors finished third, edging out Ashland by .60 at the wall.
"It's great to see one streak continue," Drury coach Brian Reynolds said, "but our team t-shirt this year was 'one team, one goal.' It's hard to see one team lose. Very hard."
The Drury men amassed 473 points to easily outdistance runner-up UC-San Diego (400) and Florida Southern (316.5) in the field of 39 men's squads.
Of all the now 10 NCAA-II titles and 19 men's overall titles won by Reynolds, this one might be a tad more satisfying because it was only a few months ago when word was out:
Drury might not be Drury anymore.
The Panthers were weakened entering the 2011-12 year by the news that their star of stars, senior-to-be Jun Han Kim, would take a year off and train for a shot at making South Korea's 2012 Olympic team. A huge blow, considering Kim was a star in the past two national meets, earning NCAA Swimmer of the Year honors as a sophomore in 2010.
There were other defections. Eligbility issues. Vladimir Sidorkin decided to stay in Florida for the first semester and chase his own Olympic hopes. The Panthers were ranked as low as no. 14 nationally at one point in the fall, a slap in the face to a proud program.
Then came the kick in the gut - an embarrassing 169-74 loss to crosstown D-I rival Missouri State in late October. After that, word officially was out on national swimming message boards that Drury, king of D-II swimming, was ripe to be dethroned.
"If you'd asked me in October what our chances would be, I'd have said 'not very good,' " Reynolds said.
But then Sidorkin returned at the break. Carlos Viveros was back as well. The Panthers added reinforcements at the semester in freshmen Oleksandr Padalkin and Kacper Pelzynski.
And a whole lot of seniors started to step their games up, while a whole bunch of young swimmers - like freshmen Daniel Swietlick, Sean Feher and Sam Olson#, to name a few - grew up in a hurry.
When the Panthers avenged their loss to MSU with a 125-118 triumph at the Breech Pool on January 19, the DU swagger was on its way back, building steam toward another nationals run.
"It was a total rebuild," Reynolds says. "Some of the swims these guys threw down, some of the comments from other coaches down here were like they couldn't believe we could rebuild, fire the kids up and come up with some of the swims we did.
"That says a lot about where we were and how much we progressed as a team. I think even coming into this meet, a lot of people just thought there was no way we'd even be in the top four."
Like it has happened for Reynolds and the Panthers time and time again, it all came together during their most important four-day stretch of the year - this time, in Mansfield, Texas.
Drury took a 23-point lead over second-place UC-San Diego into Saturday's final day of competition, and by the time the morning preliminaries were in the books - where the Panthers qualified a barrage of swimmers in the 100 Free and other races - DU could smell a repeat.
Ryan Arabejo kicked the evening off with a second-place finish in the 1650, which followed the women's highlight of the night - another national title for senior Erin Dolan in the 1650, which she also won as a freshman. An eighth and 14th from seniors #Jason Bell and Mark Grijalva# helped the Panthers compile 31 points in the event and begin their pullaway from UCSD.
A second-place effort from Sidorkin, fifth from Padalkin and 12th from Viveros in the 100 Free followed for 36 more points, UCSD picked up zero in the event, and the men's chase was effectively over, with the Panthers up 397-323.
DU would add a second from Swietlicki in the 200 Back, a seventh in the 200 Breast from Pelczynski and a victory in the night-closing 400 Free Relay, from Igor Kowal, Viveros, Padalkin and yet another winning final relay kick from Sidorkin, to set up the celebration.
"I'm very happy I came back," a grinning Sidorkin said of his return at semester.
And so is Reynolds.
"We knew Vlad was really working hard in Florida, wasn't off playing around," Reynolds said. "He had some individual goals he wanted to achieve, and I think he kind of met those individual goals here. He was walking around with a pretty big smile on his face, and he knew all of those efforts in the fall were paying off now."
For the DU women, it was an uphill struggle from the start, with that 55-point deficit staring them in the face. But a strong morning of qualifying gave them hope, including standout efforts in the timed trials of the 1650 from juniorDeanna Sorenson and freshman Allie Reynolds, who finished eighth and ninth in the event captured by Dolan (her second national title and fourth Top Five finish of the week).
The DU women whittled away at the Wayne State lead, and had it down to just nine points (465-456) entering the final race of the evening, the 400 Free Relay. But that event happened to be a strength for the Warriors, and Drury needed to win it and have WSU finish fourth or worse.
Drury did its part - the foursome of #Tinsley Andrews, Tiffany Bell, Katia #Alyabyeva and Wai Ting Yu# won the race in 3:21.97, beating runner-up UCSD by nearly two seconds - but didn't get the help it needed. Wayne State edged Ashland for third place at the wall for the slimmest of team victories, spoiling the Panthers' bid to become the first program to sweep the national titles for four straight years at either the NCAA-I or NCAA-II level.
Other outstanding efforts from the DU women on the final night included a seventh from freshman Chelsea Staab in the 200 Back and a second place-finish from Katia Alyabyeva in the 200 Breast.
Dolan left the meet as the standout for the DU women, claiming the 1650 and 1000 national titles, finishing fourth in the 500 and fifth in the 400 IM, setting, or breaking her own, school records in the first three.
"It's hard to lose it this way, but we did what nobody thought was possible ... came from 55 points down and gave it a shot," Dolan said. "I don't know any team thought we could do what we did today. I think the team grew a ton today as a team, and it's just going to motivate them to swim harder next year."
Said Reynolds: "Sometimes you learn a lot more from losses than you do wins. It's sad to see a streak end, but the girls have tremendous leadership. They have independent team meetings ... it's just a unique set of girls, and you saw how bad on this last day they wanted to win."
Drury Sports Information - Scott Puryear