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Towson men’s swimming and diving relishing first CAA championship: ‘It’s still a little surreal’

Since the 2017-18 season, the Towson men’s swimming and diving team has begun every Friday practice by belly-flopping into the pool, with the freshmen jumping in first and every class following suit. The painful exercise became a tradition known as “Flop Friday.”

So when the Tigers captured their first Colonial Athletic Association championship in program history on April 3 at the Christiansburg Aquatic Center in Virginia, they could think of no better way to celebrate than by unveiling “Flop Friday.”

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For freshman Brian Benzing, the achievement is still sinking in.

“I still don’t think I’ve gotten over the feeling because it’s one thing to win it, but it’s another thing to win it not only as a freshman, but for the first time in program history,” said Benzing, who grew up in Ellicott City and attended Wilde Lake until age 16, when he and his family relocated to Norway. “And to see the looks on the coaches’ faces, they’ve been wanting this day for a long time. So to help them achieve that dream, it was amazing. … Reality set in. We actually did what we believed we could do.”

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Even coach Jake Shrum, who joined his coaching staff in flopping into the pool, catches himself wondering if he is dreaming.

“I still have the trophy sitting on my desk, and it’s still a little surreal to see it,” he said. “I think it’s my nature to focus on the individual swims and things like that, and you don’t quite realize how well everybody swam until you kind of look at it a little bit broader, and we had some really good relays, too. There are a lot of things that are slowly sinking in about just how well our team was able to perform this past weekend.”

Entering the season, the Tigers boasted one of the youngest rosters in the conference, fielding seven sophomores and 11 seniors with only three seniors on the team of 26. But in a series of intrasquad meets held in October, November and December, Benzing unofficially broke Jeremy Liu’s school record of 55.33 seconds in the 100-yard breast stroke, freshman Evan Bota shaved seconds off his times in the 100 backstroke, and sophomore Michael Fazio and junior Ryan Baldino (C. Milton Wright) fared well in their respective freestyle events.

“Everyone was swimming faster in practices and diving well during practices,” senior diver Will Canny said. “We’d go to the few dual meets we were able to get of this year, and everyone was swimming really fast and diving really well. So it just seemed like one of those things where we were working hard and that if we kept putting in these effort that we had been putting in, we had the times and the dives.”

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In a season-opening dual meet against Navy on Feb. 6, Benzing broke Liu’s mark with a time of 54.81 seconds, Baldino won the 50 and 100 freestyle, and sophomore Ajani Dorner and Canny split the diving events with the former winning the 1-meter board and the latter claiming the 3-meter board. Although the Midshipmen won the meet, 188-100, Shrum was encouraged.

The Towson men's swimming and diving team celebrates winning the CAA title.
The Towson men's swimming and diving team celebrates winning the CAA title. (Jon Fleming/Colonial Athletic Association (CAA))

“The one question mark that still kind of remained was just how our freshmen were going to respond to swimming against an actual opponent, and even though we lost that meet, we had some amazing swims,” he said. “It started with Fazio and Baldino having really good freestyle relay splits anchoring two medley relays and then Brian Benzing officially breaking our school record in the 100 breast stroke. So even though we came out on the losing end of that meet, that was a big one where I thought, ‘OK, we’re ready to compete against teams at the level of Navy, and we’re not going to back down from that kind of challenge.’ It was good to see our kids elevate to the challenge of swimming against them.”

The Tigers did not lose another dual meet, defeating Loyola Maryland, Mount St. Mary’s and Delaware. Despite not being permitted to return home for the winter and spring breaks because of the pandemic, they banded together thanks to the intervention of seniors Nick Fitzwilliam, Nick McClure and Canny, according to Benzing.

“I think it had to do with the upperclassmen just hammering it home that we have a chance and not to stop training and giving it your all,” he said. “They were saying, ‘This is part of what it takes to become a champion.’”

If there were any nerves about competing in the team’s first multi-meet of the season at the CAA championships, they didn’t show as Towson led UNC Wilmington by 10.5 points after the first day, 122.5 after the second day, and 223.5 after the third and final day. It was the best program’s best showing since a runner-up finish to William & Mary in 2015 that would kick off a run of six consecutive conference titles for the Tribe.

Benzing was named the Most Outstanding Performer after setting two CAA records in the 100-yard breast stroke, including a winning time of 52.57 in the 100 breast stroke final. Fazio (100 freestyle), Baldino (200 freestyle) and McClure (200 butterfly) won their respective races, and Baldino and Benzing each collected three golds in relay events.

“We hadn’t used a lot of our athletes on the first day because there weren’t that many events. So we knew that we still had a lot in the tank after that,” said Shrum, who was named the conference’s Coach of the Year. “Our team was obviously extremely excited about the prospect of the next few days, and I think they did just a really great job of letting that first day go and get some rest and get some sleep before a big second day and do a really good job of maintaining that positive momentum.”

Canny, who drove down to Christiansburg to join his teammates on the last day, said the convincing margin of victory served to validate the athletes’ commitment during a season made unpredictable by the coronavirus pandemic.

“I think it shows how much effort we put into the training this season,” he said. “I know that it’s been a weird year for everyone athletically, but I think the fashion in which we won the meet sets the tone and shows that we deserved to have the victory. It’s not just because of COVID or because it was a weird year. This was a legitimate victory. We won, and I think that’s what the scores show.”

Canny and senior breaststroker Nick Fitzwilliam are the only athletes who will not return next season. McClure intends to use another year of eligibility, and the 18 freshmen and sophomores will be 18 sophomores and juniors next season.

Shrum said the promise of next year’s team will be enhanced only if the current squad uses the CAA title as a foundation for the future.

“With the way they progressed this year, I don’t see them wanting to rest on their laurels,” he said. “They’re going to enjoy this one, but I think they’re going to want to be really excited to experience that same thing again. I think they’re going to continue to push the envelope and try to get better and hopefully make some noise on the national level.”

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