Blake Pieroni leads IU to 2nd place finish in Big Ten Championships


Sophomore Blake Pieroni leads IU in a cheer before the start of the Big Ten Championship meet Saturday evening at the Boilermaker Aquatic Center. Pieroni went on to win the 100-yard freestyle with a time of 42.27, followed closely by junior Anza Tavcar and sophomore Ali Khalafalla who both placed second and third, respectfully. Noble Guyon and Noble Guyon

WEST LAFAYETTE, IND. – Sophomore Blake Pieroni walked along the pool deck at the Boilermaker Aquatic Center to the sound of “The Imperial March,” Darth Vader’s theme song from Star Wars.

Going into his events, Pieroni said he didn’t have specific goals for his performance. He just wanted to go in and win as much as possible.

Every person IU brought to the meet managed to score at least one point, IU Coach Ray Looze said. But in the end, a well-rounded Michigan scored 1,475.5 points to top IU’s 1,306 points, which gave the Hoosiers their fourth second-place finish at Big Ten Championships in six seasons.

Seeded as the No. 1 swimmer in the 100 freestyle, Pieroni stepped up onto the starting blocks. He looked to his right and saw two of his teammates and toughest competitors, junior Anze Tavcar and sophomore Ali Khalafalla, set to swim in the other lanes.

He looked to his left and saw his team and coaches along the sidelines. His mother yelled for her son from in the stands.

“He simply loves to race,” Looze said. “He’s a cold-blooded competitor. Anyone can tell by looking at his body language he has a level of confidence about him saying he is going to be hard to beat.”

As Pieroni lifted his head out of the water, he looked up at the scoreboard to see he won gold for his fifth medal of the Big Tens. He also saw he set another school record with his time of 42.27 to give IU its first win in the event since 1996.

Pieroni has dominated in the freestyle all year, but IU has more depth than just Pieroni. Tavcar and Khalafalla rounded out the top three in the event. Both Pieroni and Looze said they consider the Hoosiers’ sweep of the 100 free to be the biggest highlight of the four-day meet.

“Looking up at that board to see not only I won, but IU took first, second and third, that was the most exciting part,” Pieroni said. “On the podium having those guys standing next to me up there was almost surreal.”

The meet finished closer than anyone probably would have expected, Looze said. He credits his team of “studs” for proving they are a true championship squad.

Other podium performances from the Hoosiers came with a gold medal in the 200 freestyle relay with Khalafalla, Pieroni, Tavcar and sophomore Oliver Patrouch. IU set a school and pool record with a time of 1:16.93.

Pieroni also won the gold medal in the 200 free with yet another school record time of 1:32.33. IU’s last win in the event dated back to 1985.

Whether they lack in power or muscle, normally freshmen have a hard time coming in and contributing right away, Looze said. That hasn’t been the case for freshmen Ian Finnerty and Vini Lanza.

Lanza finished second with an IU record time of 45.64 in the 100 butterfly. Lanza was awarded bronze in the 200 fly with another school record of 1:42.38.

The 100 breaststroke saw another gold medal race from Finnerty with a time of 51.75 for a new pool record. In addition, Finnerty was named Big Ten Rookie of the Year.

“It went a lot better than I thought it would. This whole season has,” Finnerty said. “I hoped either Vini or myself would get the rookie award so I felt really lucky and honored. That was really cool.”

In the final event, the Hoosiers managed to break another relay record in the 400 free. Tavcar, Khalafalla, Finnerty and Pieroni sent the Hoosiers off on a high note and swam for a gold medal, school and pool record time of 2:50.51.

Overall, Looze said he was more than pleased with the results of his team and coaching staff.

“Preparing at a high level all season allowed us to really come out and perform strong,” Looze said. “To go out there and set so many school records and win that many relays was the best performance we’ve had at Big Tens in a long time.”

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