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Before Friday night’s dual meet against rival Michigan State (0-1), Michigan coach Mike Bottom lectured his team about gladiators:

“We talked a little bit about in the amphitheaters when they used to battle man-on-man, the old warrior coming in and the new warrior coming in; the old warrior knowing that this is his last round, the young warrior’s going to beat him up,” Bottom said. “We talked about what that warrior would have said. What a true gladiator would have said was ‘Give me your best.’ ”

That story played a heavy hand in the No. 9 Michigan men’s swim and dive team’s (2-1) final regular season bout against the Spartans due to Michigan State cutting the program. During the meet, the Wolverines concentrated on honoring more than a century of competition with their in-state foe, focusing not on their 159-77 victory but rather the meaning of the last meet against the Spartans.

“I think anybody that looks at the Michigan State program over the years has got to respect them,” Bottom said. “We’re far beyond selfish in understanding that we wouldn’t be where we are without Michigan State.”

That respect took centerstage as Michigan put its best efforts forth for Michigan State. While midseason dual meets can see lighter competition, the meet had the air of a championship grudge match.

For a program devastated by transfers, the Spartans came close to victory early in races. The thinness of their roster showed down the stretch, though, as Michigan swimmers took more commanding leads.

Michigan, in an effort to avoid running up the score against an undermanned opponent, chose not to score many of its racers, having them enter as exhibition instead. The Wolverines often only counted their victor in each event, all of which were won by Michigan.

“We want to make sure that we’re playing on a level playing field,” Bottom said. “And when Michigan State has lost some of their best because of the decisions of their administration, we want to be able to respect that.”

Winning the 200-yard butterfly, junior Jared Daigle raced an event he hadn’t swam since he was 16. Michigan State’s Cristofer Gore pushed for victory, coming close to overtaking Daigle at the third turn but falling behind in one of Michigan State’s best performances of the night. 

Daigle also swam on the second-place team in the 400-yard medley relay. The team that won that race included junior Will Chan and freshman James LeBuke, two swimmers who made a significant impact in the meet.

Winning the 50-yard freestyle and contributing to a victory in the 200-yard freestyle relay, LeBuke gave a sneak peak of Michigan’s future as the swimmer flexed his adjustment to American swimming.

“(LeBuke) is just getting his feet under him right now and learning,” Bottom said. “He’s not a yard swimmer. From Canada, he’s a meter swimmer. It’s important for him to learn how to swim in the short pool and enjoy his time here.”

While LeBuke gave Michigan a first glimpse at what he could do, Chan seemed to be one of the Wolverines’ best swimmers overall with a victory in the 200-yard breaststroke.

“(Chan) has already made such a huge impact in his freshman and sophomore years,” Daigle said. “I think this year a lot of our breaststrokers … are going to have a huge breakout season.”

Michigan sophomore Danny Berlitz made the NCAA “B” cut in the 400-yard individual medley, meaning he can enter the NCAA Championship once all “A” cuts are in. Other swimmers came within striking distance of the cuts in their own races, including freshman Wyatt Davis and LeBuke.

The Wolverines may have vanquished the Spartans in the arena, but like the gladiators Bottom referenced, that did not affect their respect for their foes.

“I know all these last meets, everything they go to — their last home meet, their last away meet, their last time in the University of Michigan pool — it’s special for them,” Daigle said. “And it’s special for all the teams that came before them.”

Members of the Michigan team threw their full support behind their visiting rivals, chanting “Go green, go white” across the pool to close out the meet. The Spartans also brought masks emblazoned with “Save our Sport” for the Wolverines to wear.

“We told them to keep fighting at the end,” Daigle said. “We know they will.”

With its third meet under its belt, Michigan made key steps in its ability to hold leads. While the end to the in-state rivalry brings intense feelings of sorrow, the Wolverines seemed to leave it all in the pool for the Spartans.

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