After competing in the closest finish in the history of the NCAA Division III Men's Swimming & Diving championship, Denison University has made history. The Big Red, who trailed by 35 points entering Saturday's finals, rallied on the fourth and final night to complete a one-point upset of 31-time defending national champion, Kenyon College.
Denison completed the 20-event championship with 500.5 points while Kenyon College finished with 499.5 points. The old saying "every point counts" has never been more true than it was on this night.
Trailing by just four points heading into the men's three-meter dive competition, the Big Red set their hopes on the shoulders of senior Cody Smith and sophomore Gabe Dixson. After strong showings in Thursday's one-meter final, Dixson and Smith matched their outstanding preliminary dive showing with fourth and fifth place finishes, respectively.
With their swimming brethren watching with bated breath, Dixson and Smith's dives only got better as the pressure built into their final two dives. Dixson ended with 541.35 points and Smith totaled 535.75 points. Both scores were career highs and their finishes awarded Denison with 29 points which went unanswered in the event by Kenyon.
That sent the Big Red into the 400 free relay with a nine point lead. Assuming a Kenyon victory (they were seeded first after preliminaries), Denison had to finish no worse than third place. In a spine-tingling, raucous atmosphere it was first-year Spencer Fronk who held off Emory's Justin Leemis by 32 hundredths of a second for third-place. Fronk closed out the relay in 44.18 which was the second-fastest split among the anchors. With all eyes going to the scoreboard, that third-place finish sent the Denison team into a frenzy as the 14 members of the Big Red squad realized their goal of a championship was complete. Also swimming strong in the 400 free relay was freshman Carlos Maciel, junior Mike Barczak and Andrew Krawchyk.
The entire night played out like two evenly matched prize fighters who took their shots until the final round. Three events favored the Lords while three events favored the Big Red.
"The whole experience was just incredibly intense for both teams," said head coach Gregg Parini. " This was the closest meet in the history of college swimming at any level and every swim, every stroke, every hundredth of a second mattered"
The backstroke events were very kind to Denison all week. On Friday they piled up 56.5 points in the 100 backstroke while being paced by Robert Barry's first-place swim. Tonight they tallied 54 points while taking a 49-point bite out of Kenyon's lead. Quinn Bartlett won his first national championship with a time of 1:46.85 and Barry followed in second with 1:47.29. First-year Sean Chabot took eighth and Michael DeSantis ended up 11th. Following the event, DU trailed the Lords by only four points with three events to go.
One event earlier, Kenyon threw their first punch by placing second, third and seventh in the 100 freestyle. For the Big Red, Barczak touched in sixth place in 45.09 while Fronk posted an outstanding time of 44.94 in the consolation heat, which placed him 10th overall.
DU set the tone early in the night when first-year standout Al Weik won the 1650 freestyle by shattering the national record of 15:14.55 set by Kenyon's Elliott Rushton in 2004. Weik covered the mile-long swim in 15:06.47 to run away with the title. Following in ninth-place was junior Dan Thurston who finished in 15:43.20. For the event, DU gained seven points on the Lords lead.
In the 200 breaststroke, junior Jake Lewing came through with a critical victory in the consolation heat. He touched in 2:01.46 to gain nine points for DU. Two Kenyon swimmers finished in a tie for sixth in the championship final to tally 25 points.
"Jake really stepped it up for us in the breaststroke," stated Parini. "After a so-so swim in the prelims he really came through for us in typical Lewing fashion and got the momentum back on our side."
This marks the first time since 1979 that a team other than Kenyon College has left the national meet with the national championship. Kenyon's streak of 31 consecutive championships was the longest in college sports. 10 years ago, Parini's women's squad snapped Kenyon's 17-year streak of national championships. After seven runner-up finishes and six third-place finishes, 2011 proved to be the Big Red men's year to shine.
"We started this process 20-some years ago and it means a lot to everyone. We had alumni getting on planes to get here today and we filled an entire section of the natatorium with Denison alums. It's guys like Aaron Cole, who drove 20 hours to be here, and Tommy Richner, that planted the seed."
That seed apparently received some major fertilization over the last 365 days.
"This team embraced the challenge and it all started last spring. We finished second last year but we lost by 400 points. You don't close a 400 point gap in one year without a major commitment from everyone," said Parini.
At the completion of the event, Parini was named the men's Division III Coach of the Year. This is the eighth national coach of the year award for Parini.