Flames push VMI men’s swimmers to the wall in semester-opening dual meet at Natatorium
In Friday’s home meet against Virginia Military Institute at the Liberty Natatorium, Liberty University’s men’s swim team found that for the tremendous depth of talent it has on this season’s roster, it is still swimming upstream when it comes to competing at the NCAA Division I level.
While the Flames won five out of 13 individual and relay events — not counting the first-place mixed 200 freestyle relay featuring two members of the Lady Flames’ women’s team that defeated the Keydets, 164-109 — VMI won the men’s meet, 178-113.
“This was just an awesome opportunity,” Liberty Head Coach Heath Grishaw said. “It was a harder one for our guys, who were coming off a break and are kind of getting back in the swing of things, trying to get back into the routine and rhythm.”
He had sprung the meet on his swimmers before fall finals, after they had peaked for the semester during the Nov. 15 College Club Swimming (CCS) Southern Regional Championships at Florida State.
“We kind of just shocked them,” Grishaw said. “We said, ‘Hey, the day you get back, you’re racing.’ They had a month to prepare at home.”
But the team was not in peak form, especially those swimmers who traveled to get back the day before or the day of the meet, including freshman Jimmy Blackstone, who flew from Alaska on Thursday.
“I’m pretty sore from sitting on an airplane all day,” said Blackstone, who led a 1-2-3 Liberty sweep the 100 butterfly in 54.19 seconds, followed by sophomore Trent Kolter (54.84) — who drove eight hours from Louisville, Ky., and arrived on the pool deck right before warm-ups — freshman Jonah Black (third, 55.21).
“I feel like I did fairly well coming off the break,” said Black, who also paced the Flames by placing second in the 200 fly in 2 minutes, 4.69 seconds. “I went a couple seconds slower than my best in the 200 and maybe a second or so slower in the 100, but overall, it was pretty good.”
“We just told the guys to fight through the adversity, and we were happy with the swims, racing-wise,” Grishaw added. ”Times will get there.”
Senior Matt Davidson accounted for two of the Flames’ five gold medal swims, winning the 100 backstroke in 52.18 and the 100 free in 48.03, and also finished second in the 50 free in 21.45. He also anchored Liberty’s first-place 200 free relay team, following freshman Dillon Delaney, Kolter, and freshman Whittman Brown in 1:29.70. Davidson and Delaney also swam legs of the 200 mixed free relay team, alternating laps with Jessica Schellenboom and Raea Farquharson to win by 0.17 seconds in 1:33.81.
Freshman Jonah Rhodenizer, who anchored the Flames’ second-place 200 medley relay team, won the 1,000 freestyle in dramatic fashion in 10:17.02, just 0.4 seconds in front of VMI senior Conner Jorgensen.
“It was a fun race, that’s for sure,” Rhodenizer said. “I had him for the first 500, but he caught up to me between the 20th length and the 30th. We were neck-and-neck going into the last 50 and that was just a sprint. Especially for the difference between (an NCAA) Division I and a Club team, I think we held our own pretty well. We trained over break with our clubs back home. There were some exciting races, some nail-biters.”
Grishaw and the Flames competed against VMI Head Coach Scott Thacker last season when Thacker was at Roanoke College.
“I look up to him as a mentor,” Grishaw said. “He’s awesome. I love that he is a steward of the sport. Being able to race his team here like we did last year when he was at Roanoke College is a blessing, for sure. We would love to try to do this at different times throughout the years to come, sometimes in the fall and sometimes in the spring.”
The Flames will travel to the University of Tennessee in Knoxville, Tenn., for their next meet on Feb. 4-5.
“(Tennessee) will be one we are going to train through,” Grishaw said, noting that he won’t taper their workouts until late March before CCS Nationals. “These guys haven’t been to that pool, so we’re excited just to go and it’s a fast pool and we’re excited to swim against that competition.”
Liberty will then travel to the University of Virginia for the Feb. 25 Wet Wahoo Invitational before hosting a Last Chance Meet at The Natatorium on March 4. That will be the Flames’ last meet before sending as many qualifiers as possible from their 27-man roster to the March 29-April 1 CCS National Championships at Ohio State. Liberty is looking to improve on its fifth-place finish at last year’s CCS nationals.
“We’re going to do really well (at nationals),” Blackstone said. “None of us swam super great tonight, and we all gained time from (Florida), but we still did well, and we have plenty of time to get faster.”
“Obviously, guys have their mindset on March, but right now, we’re going to re-center, refocus, and get these guys ready to get back into their routine and back in school and they’ll deal with the next challenge that comes,” Grishaw added. “We’ll get back into it and we’ll be ready.”
By Ted Allen/Staff Writer; Video edited by Micah Adams/Club Sports Video & Media Assistant