Half a century ago, Indiana was one of the powerhouses of college men’s swimming. The Hoosiers won six consecutive NCAA titles from 1968-73 under legendary coach James “Doc’’ Counsilman, a run that began a year after Ray Looze was born.
“I might be the only person in our program that was alive at that time,’’ said Looze, the Hoosiers’ head coach since 2002. “It’s humbling to see our name up there. It hasn’t happened in a long time.’’
Another night of stellar performances at the NCAA men’s swimming and diving championships kept the Hoosiers on top of the team standings Friday, putting them on the brink of ending that 45-year drought. Indiana got top-three finishes from Ian Finnerty, who won the 100-yard breaststroke; Blake Pieroni, second in the 200 freestyle; Michael Hixon, third in 3-meter diving; and Vini Lanza, third in the 100 butterfly. That powered the Hoosiers to 325 points, 19 more than Texas and 33.5 ahead of California.
Three more U.S. and NCAA records were set Friday, adding to the luster of a very fast meet at the Jean K. Freeman Aquatic Center. Finnerty swam the 100 breaststroke in 49.69 seconds, becoming the first person to break the 50-second barrier. Florida’s Caeleb Dressel defended his title in the 100 butterfly, finishing in 42.80 to lower his own record by .78 of a second, and Townley Haas of Texas won the 200 free in 1:29.50, breaking a record set by Pieroni two days earlier.
Looze has refrained from watching the scoreboard in a tightly contested team race. But his aim for the past 16 years has been to return Indiana to its past glory, and he expects the Hoosiers to finish strong Saturday as the meet ends.
“We’re going to make a stand, no question,’’ Looze said. “We’re swimming well, and I don’t think that’s going to change. I’m just really proud of them; it’s an honor and a privilege to see our guys in this position.
“We’ll see how it ends up. Sometimes, the underdog comes out on top.’’
Indiana, Texas and California gained some separation Friday in the team standings, as North Carolina State and Florida fell back a bit. The Hoosiers had an outstanding night, with nine top-eight finishes.
The Big Ten champion in each of the past two seasons, Indiana’s comeback accelerated last year with a seventh-place finish at the NCAA meet, its best since 1979. Last month, the Hoosiers piled up 24 medals, seven conference records and 11 school records at the Big Ten meet, one of the most successful in team history.
Pieroni said he was “a little salty’’ after losing his U.S. and NCAA record in the 200 free, a time of 1:29.63 set Wednesday on the leadoff leg of the 800 free relay. Haas joined him as only the second man to swim the 200 in less than 1:30. But the Hoosiers’ lead in the team race, which puts them in position to end Texas’ three-year reign as NCAA champion, soothed his feelings.
“We’re in first, with one day left,’’ he said. “I don’t think anyone would have expected that.
“Our goal for the whole year was to be in the top four. So we’re exceeding that. We’ve already scored almost a hundred more points than we did last year.’’
Other winners Friday were Purdue’s Steele Johnson in 3-meter diving, Stanford’s Abrahm DeVine in the 400 individual medley, North Carolina State’s Coleman Stewart in the 100 backstroke and USC in the 200 medley relay.
The team race is not over, nor is the pursuit of that crown the only drama remaining. Dressel, who swam an eye-popping 17.63 in the 50 free Thursday, can set his third U.S. and NCAA record of the meet as he tries to defend his title in the 100 freestyle. Other marks could fall as well.
Finnerty said the records, and the tight team race, are pushing everyone to swim faster. To be part of it is “surreal,’’ he said, and Pieroni predicted Saturday’s races will be “intense.’’
Looze will try to avoid looking at the scoreboard until the end.
“We’re just going to keep clawing and scratching,’’ Looze said. “We don’t know any other way.”