By George Tatoris
The men’s swimming team thought it was over once senior Scott Vitabile touched the wall, but they were wrong.
Both Vitabile and Massachusetts Institute of Technology junior Josh Tomazin touched the wall in the men’s 400-yard freestyle relay at 3:00.51, tying both teams for eighth place — the final spot to qualify for the finals.
To determine a winner, the teams went head-to-head in a swim-off on the final day of the NCAA Division III National Swimming Championship.
While most students were riding out the unseasonable winter storm, the men’s swimming and diving teams were facing the heat down in Shenandoah, Texas. The competition took place over four days from Wednesday, March 15 and Saturday, March 18. Overall, the Lions finished 12 out of 50 teams, scoring 101 points. Emory University swept both the men’s and women’s meets, the second team in Division III history to do that.
Vitabile was joined by sophomore Alex Skoog and seniors Ryan Gajdzisz and Andrew Nesbitt for both the initial preliminary and the swim-off. The Engineers came out on top by a sliver. They posted a time of 2:58.20 against the Lions time of 2:58.74. The Lions were awarded an All-American Honorable Mention for their efforts.
If the Lions had made it to the final, they would have finished third with that time.
“Having two teams go at it in front of packed house was pretty cool,” head coach Brian Bishop said. “Both teams swam even faster than they did in prelims and, had both gone that fast, would have been seeded one and two for finals. However, only one spot was open, and we came up a little short. I’m incredibly proud of the effort the guys made.”
The dramatic closer capped off a weekend of success for the Lions. Over 40 events, they compiled 21 All-American citations — most of which were for relay events.
In the 800-free relay, the quartet of Gajdzisz, freshman Harrison Yi, Vitabile and Skoog secured an honors citation with a fifth-place finish. Their final time was 6:38.84. This performance boosted the Lions two spots to 11th place on the second-to-last day of the meet.
In another relay, the 200-free, the team of junior Adam Coppola, Gajdzisz, Nesbitt and Vitabile earned All-American Honors with a sixth-place finish and a time of 1:22.33. They finished milliseconds ahead of the seventh-place team.
In the 200-medley relay, Skoog, Gajdzisz, Vitabile and Coppola earned an honorable mention with a combined time of 1:30.18, crossing tenth in the consultation final.
Another mention came out of the 400-medley relay, in which Skoog, Gajdzisz, Coppola and Vitabile finished 12th with a time of 3:18.93.
The 200-medley team had their best performance all semester in the preliminaries, reducing their previous best time by nearly a second. They took another half-second off that time in the finals. In addition, several Lions earned individual victories throughout the meet Gajdzisz beat his best time in the 200-free preliminaries with a 1:39.23 finish. In the consultation final, Gajdzisz finished 16th. Gajdzisz also finished 13th in the 100-yard breaststroke. Skoog set a personal record in the 50-free preliminaries with a time of 21.36 seconds, finishing 42nd. Coppola finished 26th with a time of 20.79 in the same race. Gajdzisz, Vitabile, Nesbitt swam their last race as a Lion. Seniors Anthony Gurrieri, Sean Johnson and Vince Masciandro also will be graduating.
“These guys put in a incredible amount of hard work over the years and I am very proud of the accomplishments they achieved throughout their career,” Bishop said. “I’m even prouder of the legacy they will leave with the program and the impact that will have for years to come.”
The women’s diving team also had strong showings in the postseason. Senior Sarah Grassi, earned a spot to Nationals in the 1-meter for her last diving meet as a Lion at the NCAA Division III Region 4 Diving Championships held on Friday, Feb. 24 and Saturday, Feb. 25. She finished sixth overall.
The first day of the meet, Grassi placed 10th overall on Friday.
The end of the season marks the men’s team’s 25th consecutive trip to the Championships and Bishop’s 28th year coaching the swim team. The 12th place finish was the Lions 23rd top-20 finish.
“It’s an honor to compete in the NCAA championships and we have had an incredible run over the last four years,” Bishop said. “While we had hoped for a higher finish, 12th place with six all Americans is still pretty good.”