Beyond the ACCtion: March Of Champions

 

Student-athletes from ACC schools claim eight gold medals in NCAA winter sports competition

Special to theACC.com by Steve Phillips

GREENSBORO, N.C. (theACC.com) – The final three weekends of March produced a flurry of national championship activity by student-athletes from current Atlantic Coast Conference schools.

Over 100 male and female ACC competitors earned All-America honors in their respective sports, and eight brought home gold medals from NCAA Championship competition in Indoor Track and Field, Wrestling, Fencing and Swimming and Diving.

Notre Dame led the way with three individual titles, followed by Duke and Florida State with two apiece and NC State with one.

The ACC’s run began March 14 and 15 at the NCAA Indoor Track and Field Championships at Albuquerque, N.M. The first day of competition saw Florida State senior James Harris prevail in the high jump. Seminole teammate Dentarius Locke followed on day two with a gold medal performance in the 200 meters, while Duke senior Curtis Beach put the finishing touches on his second career NCAA indoor heptathlon title.

With a leap of 7-7.25 (2.32 meters), Harris set an ACC, Florida State and Albuquerque Convention Center record en route to the first NCAA Championship of his stellar career.

 “Once I got jumping I was kind of grooving,” Harris, a native of Lanett, Ala., told Bob Thomas of Seminoles.com. “I got my steps together and it went really well.”

Locke joined Harris in contributing to Florida State’s fourth-place men’s team finish by winning the 200 meters in a personal best time of 6.52.

“I felt like it was the perfect race,” the Tampa, Fla., native Locke said. “I executed everything I wanted to ... When I was getting into the blocks all I was saying was, `NCAA champ, this is what I came to get.’ ”

Duke’s Beach made the most of his return to his hometown of Albuquerque by amassing a conference record, school record and personal-best total of 6,190 points en route the heptathlon gold medal.

“All I wanted to do was come out and perform my best, and as long as I did that, I’d be happy and satisfied,” Beach said. “The fact that my best ended up being an NCAA championship just makes it that much greater.”

Florida State’s Locke went on to be voted the ACC Men’s Indoor Track Performer of the Year by the league’s head coaches. The Blue Devils’ Beach was voted the ACC Men’s Indoor Field Performer of the Year and was named the 2014 Division I Indoor Athlete of the Year by the United States Track & Field and Cross Country Coaches Association (USTFCCCA).

The trio of track national titles proved only the beginning. The following weekend saw four more student-athletes from ACC schools grab the gold as the NCAA held its Wrestling, Women’s Swimming and Diving, and Fencing Championships.

The Wrestling Championships at Oklahoma City saw NC State sophomore heavyweight Nick Gwiazdowski capture the ACC’s first individual NCAA title since 2009 with a 4-2 win over top-seeded and two-time defending champion Tony Nelson of Minnesota in the finals. Gwiazdowski, who finished the season with a 42-2 record, was also voted the ACC Wrestler of the Year.

“I’m very honored to be named the 2014 ACC Wrestler of the Year,” said Gwiazdowski, who hails from Delanson, N.Y. “I take a lot of pride in competing in such a great wrestling conference, as well as being part of a program here at NC State that is on the rise. This award would not be possible without my family, friends, coaches and teammates here at NC State.”

The ACC remains one year away from resuming fencing as a league-sponsored sport, but Notre Dame offered a glimpse of what it will bring to the mix. The Fighting Irish, who competed this past season in the Midwest Fencing Conference, saw graduate student Gerek Meinhardt claim his second NCAA men’s foil title, while sophomore Lee Kiefer won her second national women’s foil championship.

“I feel great for Gerek. From my side, he is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity type of fencer to be a coach to,” Notre Dame associate head coach and foil specialist Gia Kvararskhelia said. “He is an incredible athlete, but even more of an incredible human being. I am just so proud to be associated with him.”

Meinhardt, a San Francisco native who will be featured in Sports Illustrated’s April 7 edition of “Faces in the Crowd,” outlasted Penn State’s David Willette by a 15-12 score in the title bout at the French Fieldhouse in Columbus, Ohio.

As it turned out, the Fighting Irish ultimately couldn’t have fallen short in the women’s foil finals. Kiefer’s Notre Dame teammate, Madison Zeiss, fenced her way to the title match from the other side of the bracket before falling to Kiefer by a 13-10 score.

"We both kind of felt like we had already won, since we both made it to the championship," said Kiefer, a native of Versailles, Ky.

Notre Dame’s banner weekend continued to play out in Minneapolis, where junior Emma Reaney broke her own NCAA, U.S. Open and American record with an eye-opening time of 2:04.06 in the 200-yard breaststroke.

“It's hard to put into words, but it's amazing for the program,” Irish head coach Brian Barnes said. “Emma has proven time and time again that you can have elite-level success as a swimmer at Notre Dame.”

The Lawrence, Kan., native, who topped her previous mark of 2:04.36 set four weeks earlier at the ACC Championships, was named the ACC Women's Swimmer of the Year. Also receiving postseason swimming and diving accolades was Duke senior Nick McCrory, who became the first student-athlete to claim four NCAA gold medals in platform diving. The Chapel Hill, N.C., native scored 94.50 points on his final dive to win last weekend’s competition at Austin, Texas.

“It had been an interesting contest from the start but that last dive is one of my favorites,” said McCrory, a U.S. Olympic medalist who will leave Duke with 11 All-America honors. “I’ve been doing it for six years now and I’m really comfortable with it.  But going into it, I was up there doing the math in my head of what I needed to score to win. To be honest, I didn't think I got it when I hit the water. I was surprised by the scoreboard. I saw my dive and I guess it was better than I thought.”

With the success in the winter NCAA championships, student-athletes from Atlantic Coast Conference schools have now claimed 263 individual national titles all-time – 156 in men’s competition and 107 in women’s action. With a number of ACC competitors boasting national rankings in spring sports, the conference is hopeful of displaying even more gold medals by the conclusion of the 2013-14 academic year.