COLUMBUS — When the St. Francis de Sales swim team achieved its second straight runner-up finish at the Division I state meet three years ago, the buzz extended beyond Toledo.
Ohio State coach Bill Wadley knew what it could mean for his program, too. Four of the Knights’ state champions — Michael DiSalle, Dan DiSalle, D.J. MacDonald, and Rowan Williams — would become Buckeyes.
“Toledo has always had good kids come out of there,” Wadley said. “But the truth is, these are exceptional ones.”
Once cornerstones for one of the state’s powerhouse prep programs, the former Knights are now among the top swimmers for one of the country’s top college programs. Three of them are with the seventh-ranked Buckeyes’ 13-member contingent at the NCAA championship meet, which runs today through Saturday in Austin, Texas.
Junior Michael DiSalle will swim the 100 and 200-yard freestyle events, the 200, 400, and 800 freestyle relays, and team with the sophomore MacDonald on the 400 medley relay. Williams is an alternate on the relays.
Next year, as many as five St. Francis alums could qualify. Michael’s cousin, sophomore Dan DiSalle, is a six-time state champion while Knights senior Nick Brodie has signed with OSU. Brodie anchored the winning 200 free and 200 medley relay teams in the Knights’ recent second-place finish at states.
This week, the Buckeyes appear in position for just their second top-10 national finish since 1975.
“We’re all pretty excited,” DiSalle said. “I’ve never been to Texas before, and I’ve never been in that pool, but I heard it’s really fast. I’m hoping to score some points.”
Few will be following the meet closer than St. Francis’ former coach. Keith Kennedy spent 12 years as the head coach of the Knights before leaving in 2012 to run San Clemente Aquatics in Southern California, and nearly as long training the four swimmers who would flood the Toledo-to-Columbus pipeline.
“I’m very proud of those boys,” Kennedy said. “It’s been a lot of fun to follow them.”
Though the boys were not a package deal to OSU — “It’s not something we planned,” Williams said — the four are friends and share a can-you-top-this? drive.
That goes in the classroom, where DiSalle is preparing for dental school, Williams is a science engineering major, and all are scholar-athletes at OSU. And it applies in the pool, where their times have plunged at unusual rates.
Take DiSalle and Williams.
DiSalle, a four-time Ohio state champion, began college swimming the 200 free in the 1 minute, 38-second range. At this month’s Big Ten championship meet, where the Buckeyes placed third behind host Michigan and Indiana, he swam it in a school-record split of 1:33.51 while his 800 relay team smashed the previous program mark with a time of 6:19.28.
Williams, a junior who along with DiSalle and MacDonald qualified for the 2012 U.S. Olympic Trials, has shaved 14 seconds off his time in the 500 free.
“What college swimmer drops five seconds?” Wadley said of DiSalle. “And Rowan, going from 4:32 to 4:18 [in the 500 free], that’s very rare. You just don't see those kinds of drops. If you look at their high school times, they’re nice, but those times don’t score points. You just dream of them being 1:33, or if they’re a 4:32, you hope to get them down in low 4:20s. But if they don’t get there, you can’t be upset. A 4:25 is still a nice drop.
“There’s a lot of people that could be millionaires but are not. These guys chose to be champions, and they worked hard to develop that mindset.”
Now comes their biggest meet yet.
With their family and friends watching — family from the stands, friends from the pool deck — DiSalle said he’s “excited to represent my team, Ohio State, and Toledo.”
“Rowan, D.J., Dan, and I, we’ve been swimming together since we were 9 or 10,” he said. “Basically we’ve been on the same team for 12 years now. Growing close with them and having them come has been awesome.”