The NCAA Zone B Diving Championships began on Monday at the Allan Jones Intercollegiate Aquatic Center in Knoxville. Divers from the southeastern region gathered together to battle for positions at the national championships.
There were more than 48 women and 41 men from 18 different schools looking to stamp their names in history and extend their diving seasons.
The action began at 11 a.m. with the women’s 1-meter springboard preliminaries. Freshman Ana Celaya Hernandez came in 24th place with a score of 242.70, and junior Emily Pelletier was 31st with 213.70 points.
Junior Rachel Rubadue cemented her place in the NCAA field in the 1-meter springboard event, compiling a score of 570.85 to give her the fourth highest total out of 41 competitors. She will advance to the NCAA championships, which will be in her hometown of Columbus, Ohio.
"On the women's side, Rachel was steady as a rock all day long. Going in, I thought 1-meter could be her toughest sport to qualify, and she got it done,” diving coach Dave Parrington said.
Later in the afternoon, the men competed in the 3-meter springboard event. The draw began with 41 men, but only six could advance. Of those 41, five were Vols: Colin Zeng, Liam Stone, Nick Rusek, Will Halla and Keegan Richardson.
Freshman Keegan Richardson placed 29th in the event with a score of 280.30.
The four Vols who advanced to the finals were in for a dogfight. There was a total of 18 men who competed in the finals, but only six would be left standing. At the beginning of round one, the Vols occupied four of those six spots.
After six rounds of back-and forth-breathtaking dives, two Vols remained in the top six. Freshman Will Hallam finished 12th with a total of 695.30. Nick Rusek (701.20), who has recently been battling injuries, had a top six spot up until the last round, only missing out by a slim margin of 6.20.
“What can I say about Nick Rusek?” Parrington said. “He has dealt with injuries a lot this year and was right in the thick of it until the last dive. I could not be more proud of him. Will Hallam, as a freshman, was right in the mix as well.”
Redshirt junior Colin Zeng entered the finals trailing North Carolina’s Gregory Duncan by 24.60 points. Zeng went deep into his bag of tricks and ended up on top with a score of 828.05, beating Duncan by over 27 points and punching his ticket to the NCAA championships.
Senior standout Liam Stone came out in his last competition in front of the home crowd in Knoxville. It seemed only right that he come out and give a strong performance, and he did just that.
“It’s pretty special to be able to have my last zones at my home pool,” Stone said. “Having my teammates and friends come and watch was awesome. That gave me lots of energy and made me want to put in a good performance … I did my routine and got the job done.”
Stone went out and wowed the judges, executing multiple difficult dives to separate himself from the pack and earn the third highest score of the event with a total of 779.75. The next closest competitor was nearly 70 points behind.
This performance booked his third trip to the NCAA championships, where he hopes to add to an already impressive resume of six All-American certificates and a title in the 1-meter springboard event.
“We have a couple of weeks where we’ll be physically and mentally preparing and pushing each other to try to bring home first place,” Stone said.
Parrington was asked about the team’s performance at the conclusion of the day.
"As a team, for both the men and women today, I'm really pleased,” Parrington said. “There's some disappointment for those who didn't make it there for the NCAA field, but they have a shot the next day and the day after. They have to get up and get ready to go. As a team we did a fantastic job. As far as this meet goes, this is part of our preparation for NCAAs.
“They're still lifting in the weight room, so they will be more rested when they compete again at NCAAs.”
The Zone B Diving Championships will resume Tuesday morning at 11 a.m. with the men’s 1-meter preliminaries, followed by the finals. Then, at 3:30 p.m., the women will battle in the 3-meter preliminaries, with the finals to follow shortly after.