March 11, 2010

By Marty Gitlin

Special to NCCA.com

CANTON, Ohio - Two more days remain in the women's competition of the Division II Swimming and Diving Championships. But if you take it from Wayne State coach Sean Peters, this one is nearly wrapped up.

Perennial title contender Drury University (Springfield, Mo.) has dominated from the start. The Panthers extended their lead Thursday to more than 100 points and have now racked up 343 with Wayne State of Detroit (241) within shouting distance and West Chester (Pennsylvania), University of California-San Diego, Ashland (Ohio) and Clarion (Pennsylvania) nearly 200 or more points behind.

And that explains why, when asked if Drury can be caught, Peters replied with an emphatic "No!"

"They're the elite team here," he said. "We're doing everything we can to push them and ourselves to the best possible finish, but going in we realized that on the women's side, second place would be a very good finish."

It might also be a very good finish for the men considering that Drury has opened a significant lead on that side of the draw as well. The Panthers (264 points) are 65 points ahead of Incarnate Word (San Antonio) and more than 100 in front of Grand Valley State (Allendale, Mich.), Ouachita Baptist (Arkadelphia, Ark.) and Wayne State.

It's not as if Drury is racking up victory after victory in either men's or women's swimming. Li Tao did snag first place in the women's 100-yard butterfly on Thursday and both the Drury men and women captured critical firsts in the 400-yard medley relays. But it was the Panthers' depth that buried the competition. Drury placed a number of male and female swimmers in the top three.

Included were second-place finishers Li Yangqing in the women's 400 individual medley, Jun Han Kim in the men's 400-yard IM, Alexander Protsenko in the men's 200 freestyle and the women's 200 freestyle relay team.

"We know there's no way you can come here and expect to win all the events," said Drury coach Brian Reynolds. "But I'm extremely proud of these kids. A lot of them have stepped up to put us in many of the finals. We need to continue to swim well the next couple of days, but I never thought on the women's side that we would have this kind of a lead on the second day. As for the men's, this is what we anticipated. We knew that we were going to have to swim well all four days."

Reynolds was particularly proud of Protsenko, who didn't even make the cut to participate among the top 16 in the 200 freestyle two years ago.

"To come that far that fast in a national championship event, well, that was an amazing swim for him," Reynolds said.

The Drury swimmers boasted no monopoly on amazing performances. University of California-San Diego sophomore Alexandra Henley won the 400 IM with a time of 4:18.71, shedding more than three seconds off her prelim clocking in the process. Yet she was mildly disappointed.

"My goal for the season was about 4:16 or 4:17," she explained. "Last year I was first in the prelims, but choked in the finals and I got sixth place. This year I was like, 'I can do this.' My goal was to take more confidence into the race and I was able to do that.

"I'm usually a lot better in finals than in prelims. I swim consciously slower in the morning. I don't kill myself because I know I'm going to swim the same race twice. I knew Li was going to be there in the finals. I knew she'd be there in the fly and back and I knew she'd be there in the breast, but my coaches have told me that when it came down to the freestyle, I would be the best in the pool. That thought kept reverberating in my mind the whole way."

Wayne State 23-year-old freshman Joaquin Abascal Gallegos was certainly the best in the pool in the men's 400 IM. He blitzed the competition at 3:50.90 to win his first national collegiate championship after excelling in his native Spain.

"I was watching the splits in the morning and I knew that (Kim) swam fast in the fly," he explained. "I knew I had to do my best in the backstroke and in the breaststroke and finish strong."

Gallegos did indeed finished strong. And he was able to give Wayne State badly needed points. But perhaps it has become a foregone conclusion that no team will score enough points to knock off Drury - on the women's or men's side.