As Duquesne Swimming coach Dave Sheets entered Towers Pool, he was greeted with a question that would surface all season long, “How are you?”
The answer would always be the same and one Sheets crafted to navigate his team throughout the season: “Steady as she goes.”
“We will take issues as they come but let’s not create issues on our own,” he said. “That’s a credit to our coaching staff and student-athletes in our program to take the approach. We just wanted to manage the emotions throughout the season and for the most part, I think we did a good job of that.”
As Duquesne navigated the waters during a season in which COVID-19 cases increased at higher rates, the Dukes placed second, posting 509 points at this year’s Atlantic 10 Swimming and Diving Championships.
It is the eighth consecutive season that Duquesne has placed third or better at the A-10 Championships.
“Obviously, our expectation is to go and compete for a conference championship but things being the way they were this year, I thought a fourth or fifth place could probably be where we were going to finish,” said Sheets. “Going there and finishing second and the way the ladies stepped up every day and kept grinding, it shows the resiliency and grit of our program. They know what the expectation is and stepped up to it. I couldn’t be prouder of how the ladies swam and dove over those four days.”
It was an unconventional season last year as the A-10 Championships were held in April which proved a grind for all involved, with the diving program having to make the one-hour drive to Youngstown State just to get on boards and dive.
This year, Sheets attempted to keep things fresher for Duquesne, though the season certainly presented its share of challenges.
Of course, building team chemistry can take time, but COVID-19 was still a factor, multiple meets were cancelled and there were serious doubts as to whether the team’s annual training trip in Pompano Beach, Fla. would occur.
The team opted to make the trip and though a couple of individuals did end up in quarantine, Duquesne was able to manage this challenge
“We needed this trip from a perspective of some normalcy,” Sheets said. “When we got down there, they took advantage of being down there from a work aspect but also enjoying being together as a team without the other things to worry about. They embraced what we do down there, so it was something that we all really needed.”
Duquesne finished its first day at A-10’s in fourth place, though the team consisting of Mendy De Rooi, Hayley Taylor, Emma Menzer and Hanna Everhart won the 800-yard freestyle relay with a 7:15 time, breaking the conference record previously set in 2018.
Even when Duquesne remained in fourth place after day two, Sheets did not panic, with the Dukes improving to second place after Friday’s third day, a position maintained in Saturday’s finale as the team shattered multiple program records in the process.
“We have to take it one race at a time and we’re going to continue to get better when the other teams would stay consistent,” stated Sheets. “It was a little bit of coach speak, but also these girls refusing to give up and understanding that there was a lot of pride on the line. They stepped up with every prelim, final and consolation and refused to give in.”
Duquesne’s diving program, which is in its fifth year has now been one which has consistently been able to earn points against Atlantic 10 foes and now under second-year coach Jeanine Stright, are building on the foundation already set.
Sheets stated that the program is bringing in “a heck of a diver” next year that will make the team stronger and guide the underclassmen to set the bar higher.
As A-10’s wrapped up, Sheets admitted that he had mixed emotions as he had to say goodbye to a senior class that is starting a new chapter in their respective lives, while the future of the program was taking shape in front of him.
This particular senior class was the last group to have won a conference championship at Duquesne and Sheets hopes that their biggest contribution to those who will return is an understanding of what it takes to succeed.
“It’s not easy to win a conference championship and they’ve helped us get there,” he said. “Now you have freshman walking in the door and we have to preach the expectation and we’ll start that process as soon as their high school and club seasons are over.”
Photo credits: John Reid/Atlantic 10