Upsets in sports happen almost every day. The fact that Butler and VCU (both coached by D3 grads!) will face off in the Final Four are proof of this phenomenon. Upsets like these are pretty big. Other upsets are smaller. The upset of Denison over Kenyon is enormous. It’s magnitude can’t truly be measured and most of us are still not sure what happened. The fact that upsets happen so often in sports made this streak all the more impressive.
In 1980, the Kenyon Mens’ and Womens’ swim teams won their first respective titles. It would take more than 20 years for either to lose. At that time, it was the Kenyon women who fell to a Denison team who swam lights out all weekend. The men, that same year, went out and won the same way they always did: dominantly. Dominance is an important part of this streak. It’s not just the fact that won for 31 straight years, which would be impressive enough, but it’s the way they won. They didn’t squeak by. They didn’t win by a solid 100 point margin. They absolutely destroyed their competition. No year since their first title was even close. All meets were decided after Day 1, if not before they started the first race. It is a testament to great recruiting, year after year, combined with the phenomenal improvements Coach Steen was able to get from his swimmers.
In 2006, in Houston, the national meet was predicted to be a close call for the Lords. On paper, Denison looked like they may win, when nerds like my scored out the psych sheet. Even Kenyon alums had their worries. Those worries were dashed quickly as Kenyon came out swimming from the first event and never looked back, even a bit. They won by a huge margin and confirmed that it wasn’t how you entered the meet that counted, but how you swam at the meet.
This year was not a year in question. Kenyon was poised to win by a fair margin on paper and historically, they’ve exceeded the paper score, by a lot. The rules of qualifying did change though, and it didn’t work out in the Lords’ favor. At least one swimmer who didn’t taper for NCACs was left out of the NCAA meet. It was a risk that didn’t pay off. It was a mistake that everyone, including myself, overlooked. They are Kenyon. It couldn’t matter, right?
Denison, on the other hand, appeared to have quite a battle on their hands with Emory for runner up. The race for runner up was commonly a battle and one the rest of the country was used to. Last year, it came down to a small margin with a relay false start changing the name on the 2nd place trophy. Based on results from their conference meet, which they won over Kenyon, they looked fairly rested. Questions arose (at least in our forums they did) over why Coach Parini would potentially hurt their nationals’ performance for a conference title? No one had the answer. Only time would tell.
Fast forward to Day 1. 500 free and 200 IM go by and Kenyon has yet to have a finalist. They make up for it by a 1-2 prelims finish in the 50 free, but questions begin to fly. After night 1, the Lords manage to win half of the events and take a solid lead. Those murmurs quiet down and Kenyon alums can sleep soundly.
The meet had only just begun however. We knew that where Denison was strong, they were really strong, but we thought Kenyon was strong all over. Kenyon had depth, but it wasn’t stepping up. Kenyon had studs, but they weren’t stepping up. Denison, on the other side, was dropping time from their “rested” swims at NCACs and moving up all over the place. This difference was making the meet look closer and closer. Kenyon was going to need to put the Big Red to sleep because you don’t need them swimming inspired while you’re struggling to hit seed times, let alone PRs.
Day 4 began with the 100 freestyle. This was a great event for the Lords but Big Red could step up. They did, but not enough. Kenyon put in 3 in finals, in fact, 3 of the top 5. Was it over?
Nope. Denison’s strongest event of the day, the 200 backstroke, was next. They had 4 swimmers who would be looking to come back while Kenyon had 2 backstrokers aiming at the top 8. One of those athletes, Michael Mptosis, had finaled last year and thus far, was one of the few Lords swimming well. He could seal it for Kenyon… instead, he finished 16th. Denison put 3 of their 4 in the final and the other would get a second swim. Kenyon’s other, was qualified 15th and instead of looking at finals, both Lord backstrokers were lucky to get a night swim. To make matters worse, Denison’s Quinn Bartlett broke the NCAA record in the event. Talk about momentum…
Nevermind… Kenyon breastrokers put to rest any momentum Big Red gained by finaling 2 and consoling another while Denison’s only entrant was sitting 10th. Back to no chance?
With the 1650 in the afternoon, Kenyon’s Andrew Chevalier was able to post a time that would eventually be 2nd. That’s what stepping up is all about. Big swim at the time his team needed it most. That night, Denison needed a victory despite the 2 time returning champion being in the event. Allen Weik didn’t care. Allen Weik came to Denison to win a championship and he did…. in style. He broke the NCAA record in an event Kenyon has been dominant in since the beginning. Let me restate this… he didn’t just break it, he destroyed it. It may be a 1650, but 8 seconds is about half a pool length regardless.
In the 100, Kenyon needed a win. They needed the upset of Craig Fleming, who didn’t have a steak in the team title. He didn’t care. Despite being slow off the blocks, Fleming thwarted the Lords’ arsenal of sprinters chance to win back momentum. The 200 back proved only slightly helpful for Kenyon, who was able to move up, but not enough. The final individual swimming event was the 200 breast and the action for the team championship really happened in consols. First of all, Jake Lewing won, which is a 2 point edge. In the opposite direction, Kenyon’s Lars Matkin was disqualified for an illegal kick. He would have scored 2 points. Those 2 points would be big.
Diving was next and Kenyon has never really supported diving. They did have divers this year, but they didn’t make the meet. Denison’s did. They were big and they were underestimated going into the meet. They came up huge here and for the first time all meet, Denison led. That’s right, the first time Denison would lead the meet was after the 2nd to last event.
Now all Denison needs is to finish 3rd in the relay and they walk away with the title, assuming, as we all did (correctly), that Kenyon would win. After 3 swimmers, Denison was in 4th. This was not the plan for Denison. They couldn’t come this close, only to lose it on the last relay, right? They anchored with Spencer Fronk, who is among the best American D3 recruits in history. He trails Kenyon, of course who was not within striking distance, Emory and MIT. Spencer came up huge and split a 44.1, which was among the best splits in the race. This propelled Denison to a 3rd place finish and their first men’s national title.
No one predicted this. No one expected it. Even as it was happening, we didn’t believe it would. Great job Big Red, but the Lords will be back. Then again, with such a youthful squad, so will Denison.
After their first loss, the Kenyon women’s team was able to regroup, rebuild and win it back. After a few years, that ended as well with some great swimming from the Lady Eagles of Emory. Emory has since started a little streak of their own. A streak they continued this year, with dominance. Congrats to Emory and it’s too bad their performance will be so overlooked this weekend.