Geneva, OH — As the Duquesne swimming 400 yard relay team prepared for the final event of the women’s Atlantic 10 conference championship it intentionally did not want to know where it stood.
Duquesne student assistant coach Morgan Fink, had no voice left from four days of competition but was beside coach Dave Sheets ready to offer encouragement.
On the diving area bulkhead stood at least a dozen Duquesne swimmers both nervous and excited, hanging on this final result.
Duquesne entered the final relay seven points ahead of a Richmond team which had won the event 11 out of the past 12 years.
As senior Shelly Heim touched the wall at event’s end, the noise at SPIRE Institute was deafening as Duquesne celebrated, while its quartet of swimmers tried to play catch up.
“My relay, the last final, we actually did not know what the score was going into it,” senior Lexi Santer, one of those swimmers said. “When we finished, we didn’t know, so we looked over to Dave (Sheets) and the coaches. Did we win? What happened? We were just standing around, we didn’t know what was going on. We didn’t want to psyche ourselves out. He asked us if we wanted to know what the scenario was and we told him no and that we were going to try our hardest.”
Duquesne was indeed celebrating as it held off Richmond 567-558 in the event and earned its first ever Atlantic 10 swimming and diving championship.
For its coach David Sheets, it has has been a 17-year long process to earn history. There certainly were bumps in the road but the program continued to improve and following two consecutive second place finishes, Duquesne was able to hold hands off the bulkhead, jumping and splashing into the pool as champions.
“It’s been a long process,” Sheets said. “When I first got here in 2001, the losing of the men’s team and everything we’ve been through, how great this is for the university and athletic department, specifically those 2017-18 women out there and all of our alums for Duquesne. This is just as much theirs as it is ours.”
The possibility of winning this year became even more of a reality with the addition of diving, a clear sign of support from the athletic department.
Still there were some who believed Duquesne was a year or two away from winning A-10’s, a fact which was certainly debunked Saturday.
“We’re champs, the 2017-18 swimming and diving A-10 champs,” said Sheets. “I thought we had the team that could do it this year. Whether people thought we couldn’t do it or it is a growing process adding diving. It was having the support of our administration and they thought we could do it.”
Duquesne’s administration was represented by Rick Christensen and Megan Jahrling and Sheets received a congratulatory phone call from director of athletics David Harper shortly after the trophy presentation.
“Coach Sheets, his staff and team truly exemplify the word ‘champions’,” Harper said. “The team is comprised of tough competitors and tremendous character. I cannot think of a group more deserving of a conference title than this team.”
How the championship was won
After Friday’s third day of competition, Duquesne had to experience something it had not all week, having to swim from behind. Duquesne led wire-to-wire until the final event on the penultimate day of competition. Once the day concluded, Duquesne trailed Richmond 401-400, the slimmest of margins.
As the next day was mapped out, Duquesne started to consider the possibilities, especially with Richmond able to earn points in diving that the Dukes were unable to obtain.
“We didn’t have the lead and we knew we were going to lose 30 points to diving,” Santer said. “This morning every time someone made finals or consolations, we were going crazy. Every swim counts, it is not just the girls that win the A final, it’s the depth. That is what did it this year.”
Still, Sheets remained optimistic, sticking to his message before the championship, believing day four could be Duquesne’s day, which is what ended up occurring.
“We knew the fourth day was going to be a very good day for us,” said Sheets. “We kind of weathered the storm a little bit. I knew we had a lot of depth and that was going to help us come Saturday.”
While the preliminary heats do not award any points, Duquesne crowded the bulkhead and surrounding areas loudly cheering its swimmers, knowing each result was extremely important.
Even in the prelims, tensions got high as Richmond coach Matt Barany had a lengthy conversation with one of the officials involving a flinch from one of his swimmers, something which showed that even then, he knew how important points were going to be.
Barany held up the next heat by a few minutes and then after that heat resumed the discussion after which he furiously wrote on a sheet his next heat’s swimmers.
In the Saturday finals, Duquesne outnumbered Richmond in terms of swimmers competing in most of the championship and consolation heats.
The previous days, Duquesne opened the early events strong, but Saturday it was all about the consistent results both in the championship and consolation heats. The consistency and depth were what made the difference.
“Today it was all about points, whether it was third place points or 13th place points,” Sheets said. “It was a total team effort today, everyone stepped up and did what they needed to do to make sure that come that relay we would be at the top of the podium.”
Richmond earned 29 points from diving, which gave Duquesne a seven point advantage heading into the final relay, which was worth 40 points for first place which each subsequent place earning two points in decreasing order.
Duquesne placed fifth in the event and Richmond finished sixth securing the nine-point victory.
After the event Duquesne received some honors as Emma Brinton was name Atlantic 10 Most Outstanding Rookie.
Additionally Sheets was named Atlantic 10 Women’s Coach of the Year and his staff all joined him.
As cliche as it sounds, Fink truly believed that from day one this team had the ability to become champions and that in itself was the season’s turning point.
“I think it was just the goal of being champions,” she said. “We knew we could do it, we knew it was possible. The girls hard work all season was really what it was all about. We were in it together, we did it together. That was the big part of everything.”
For Santer, this was her final race as one of four seniors and never once did the smile leave her face, whether it was following the final event, singing Bon Jovi’s ‘Livin’ on a Prayer’ with her teammates as it played on the speakers or posing for pictures.
“This is an amazing opportunity for the program and it’s the best way to end my swimming career,” said Santer. “No individual award or anything would have done this. We’ve gotten better every single year and now we’re finally on top and it’s amazing.”
Appreciating the ‘swammers’
During a break in Saturday’s action, a Duquesne fan was all smiles. He made the trip to Geneva despite his daughter having graduated from the swimming program in 2012. He was there to support the program in hopes of seeing history made.
Sheets affectionately calls swimmers that graduate the program swammers, inviting them back to support the program in any way they see fit. He guesstimated 20 swammers were parted of a massive Duquesne cheering section in the far right corner joined the current swimmer’s parents.
Whether it was posing for pictures with the parents after medal ceremonies, smiles whenever a swimmer’s name was called or even holding up one final after the victory splashdown, it is clear how much Duquesne appreciates those have helped this program both with their passion and support.
“We owe a lot to what our parents and our fans do for us,” Sheets said. “A lot of those swammers, traveled to watch this and watch us do what we did. It means a lot to me, but I know it means a lot to the swimmers that were here and got that award. For parents to come back that don’t have skin in the game anymore, I think that says a lot about the culture of our program, what we’re building and what we will continue to build here.”
Fink certainly understands that as a swammer herself. Her grin was permanent and when she stopped for an interview, tears began to form.
“To be on the team whenever we were in seventh place, moving up to fifth, third and now being champions and still be part of it is absolutely amazing,” said Fink. “I am so proud of the girls and I’m lost for words.”
It was a different experience for Fink who was taking on more of a coaching role as has been the case for Sam Ray who also is both a swammer and student assistant coach.
For Fink, it is easy to see how much Duquesne means to her, but was nonetheless quick to point it out, gesturing towards her shirt.
“Like my shirt says, I have pride,” Fink said. “I will always be a Duquesne Duke no matter where I am, no matter if I am in the pool, on the deck or in the stands. Once a Duke always a Duke.”
Fairly soon, Santer will become a swammer herself and she realizes the history and stress which have come with SPIRE Institute and she is ready to similarly continue to support the program.
“I’ll probably come back for the next couple of years to watch,” she said.
‘Just the beginning’
When Sheets got to the lobby, he was greeted by swimmers, swammers and parents alike with a standing ovation. Sheets offered a some words expressing gratitude for everyone coming but also made everyone a promise.
“We’ve got a lot of history to write yet,” he stated. “We’re just getting started.”
Duquesne swimming and diving has taken that next step as a program and Sheets certainly believes this can continue as the team has excelled and diving gained experience on the boards this weekend.
“We’re not done,” said Sheets. “It’s not going to be one and done. We’re going to keep working and maybe two, maybe 10 but we’ll keep winning, at least that’s our goal but we’re going to work hard to get the right kind of people for what we’re looking for.”