Call it a blend of progress and timing.
Last season, a young and inexperienced North Carolina men's swimming and diving team traveled to Minneapolis, Minn., to participate in a meet against Minnesota and Nebraska.
The results were mixed. Then-No. 22 UNC squeaked by the Cornhuskers but was blown out of the water by the Golden Gophers, losing 234-135.
This season, the Tar Heels were again ranked 22nd in the nation entering the weekend's dual meet with Minnesota. They had an opportunity to exact revenge on the Gophers, who were ranked 10th and without Olympians Keam Ang, Alex Massura and Allen Ong.
And did they ever.
UNC stroked past Minnesota on Friday and Saturday at Koury Natatorium, defeating the Golden Gophers 198.5-171.5. The Tar Heels are now 1-1 for the year, while UM dropped to 2-1.
"I feel like we've improved a lot as a team, in general," UNC junior Chris Helin said. "I think we're more focused and more determined. We're definitely a lot better than we were last year at this time."
Although Minnesota won 11-of-20 events during the two-day meet, UNC's depth allowed it to stay on top for the entire competition.
But the Tar Heels also received particularly strong performances from sprinter Kevin Erndl, individual-medley specialist Helin and distance swimmer Yuri Suguiyama. Each won two individual events.
Erndl set the stage early Friday with his performance in the 200-yard medley relay. Swimming the anchor freestyle leg of the meet's opening event, Erndl reeled in UM's Grant Butler in his first 25 yards. The speedster then breezed by the Gopher after the turn to win the relay for teammates Kert Johnson, Sebastian Moity and Sean Quinn.
"Within our group - within the sprint group as a whole - the attitude has changed," Erndl said. "It seems that nobody fears swimming fast anymore. They're not scared to go out and die in the middle of a race."
Erndl showed this determination later in the 50- and 100-freestyle races. He dominated both races, leading from start to finish en route to two individual victories. His time in the 50 - 20.37 seconds - was just .20 off his career best in the event.
But Erndl's quick times were overshadowed by those of a freshman.
Suguiyama won the 500 and 1,000 freestyle, breaking a school record in the 1,000 by .23 seconds. Olympian Yann deFabrique set the mark in 1995.
"I expected to swim fast this meet, but I didn't expect to swim as fast as I was able to," Suguiyama said. "As far as the 1,000 goes, there've been a lot of great swimmers in Carolina's history, and to be able to break the record is quite an honor."
But Suguiyama nearly broke the record and lost his race at the same time. He received stiff competition throughout the 1,000 from Gopher freshman Justin Mortimer.
In what was perhaps the meet's most exciting race, Suguiyama held a .22 second lead at the 500-yard mark. Mortimer stormed ahead at 550 yards, but Suguiyama soon reclaimed the lead in the race's 23rd lap.
Between the 850- and 900-yard marks, Suguiyama increased his lead from .07 seconds to .83 seconds, effectively pulling away from Mortimer. Suguiyama finished in 9 minutes, 9.59 seconds, while Mortimer touched second in 9:10.11.
Helin won the 200 and 400 IM races by 1.93 and 1.13 seconds, respectively. Joining Helin as double winners in the meet were Gophers Dan Coaston, Jeff Hackler and Todd Smolinski.
Coaston won the 1- and 3-meter diving competitions, twice topping Tar Heel runner-up Stephen Krebs. Hackler won the 100 and 200 breaststroke events, and Smolinski won the 100 and 200 backstroke.
Minnesota also won three of the five relay events. Interestingly enough, UNC touched first in two of the Gopher wins Saturday - in the 200 and 400 free relays - but was twice disqualified for diving in early in between relay legs.
"We practice that stuff all the time," UNC coach Frank Comfort said. "Our sprinters have gradually evolved over the past few years into a very good group, and they're only going to get better. I mean, they're swimming so fast."
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