Harel Anolick and Trevor Nelson both fell short in their pursuit of an Illinois High School Association state championship Saturday afternoon at the Burton Aquatic Center.
But the two Evanston divers still combined for the program’s best effort since 1969 when the judges’ scores were added up.
Anolick, a senior, earned runnerup honors with a total of 514.90 points and Nelson, a junior, placed 4th at 475.05 while leading ETHS to an overall 14th place finish in the team standings. The two Wildkit standouts both improved on their State finishes of a year ago, when they earned 5th and 9th, respectively.
Evanston’s only other qualifier for Saturday’s finals, senior Aidan Dillon, raced to an 8th place finish in the 500-yard freestyle event in a time of 4 minutes, 35.33 seconds. That effort gave the host school a total of 24 points.
New Trier ended Lyons Township’s three-year stranglehold on the team championship with a point total of 161, beating out the runnerup Lions (150.5) and Hinsdale Central (116.5).
Anolick and Nelson battled the eventual state champ, Kevin Sullivan of Downers Grove North, and last year’s second place finisher, Eric Correa of Mount Carmel, down to the wire in the two-day test that featured 11 dives for each of the finalists. Sullivan ruled with 535.25 points and Correa claimed 3rd place at 505.85. That was the order of the top divers after Friday’s semifinals, and the quartet matched each other dive-for-dive in Saturday’s finals in a show of competition that casual observers of the sport don’t always grasp.
Unlike many sports, there is no “defense” in diving and you won’t find competitors rooting against their opponents, hoping for failed dives that will give them an opportunity to move up in the standings. Yet the competitive aspect is real for all of those involved.
Just ask Anolick, the first 4-time state qualifier in the history of the program.
“In a sport like basketball if you get behind, you can just play harder on defense,” Anolick said. “But this sport is very nerve-wracking, especially when it’s as close as this, and you never want to root for someone else to mess up. You just have to focus on trying to get ahead by doing your own dives better. Being a competitor is huge, and one of the huge advantages Trevor and I had this year was getting to compete against someone every day in practice who you know was capable of beating you.
“In terms of that day, it turned out exactly the way it should have. Kevin’s the one who dove the best that day, and he deserved to win. I’m happy with the way I dove, too. After 5 dives it started to become clear that no one was going to surge and take first place away from Kevin.”
Anolick and Nelson scored the best combined finish for the Wildkits since Jim Blades and Al Doering placed 1-3 way back in 1969. Blades is the last ETHS diver to win a state crown.
“I’m so proud of both of them,” said ETHS diving coach Aaron Melnick. “It was not an easy battle and they had to work and fight for those positions. Harel and Trevor did such a great job of keeping their heads even with the (inconsistent) scoring. Every single one of the top four guys was just relentless on Saturday.
“If I were the one judging the meet, I’d say it finished just the way it should have as far as the order goes, not the (total) points. All 4 of those guys are great divers and they didn’t allow room for error on anyone else’s part. Sullivan was spectacular for the entire meet, and he didn’t give anyone a chance to catch him.”
Anolick, who will continue his career at Duke University and is likely to be named an All-American diver for the fourth year in a row, learned in his early trips to State that the judging isn’t always consistent and that dealing with that issue is part of every successful diver’s growth.
He also appreciated the opportunity for one final appearance in the ETHS pool that has been his second home over the past 4 seasons.
“I think the judging is flawed in high school, but I know it’s not easy,” said the Evanston senior. “When you come to State you can hit your first dive great, a dive you might get 8s on during the season, and you’ll get a 6.5 or a 7. When that happens you don’t know what to think. It can really be hard when you don’t get the big points you think you deserve.
“I learned the first couple of trips that you just have to be ready for those inconsistencies. It helped me that I have a personal style that the judges either like or don’t like --- even in club --- and I’m a little more used to getting those disparate scores.
“It is a bummer that I don’t get to call myself a state champion. But I dove well, and I think I had a good state meet. It’s super cool that I’m a 4-year state qualifier and I had 4 years of fun diving here. Finishing second was a more special experience than I expected it to be, because I did it in our pool and there were a lot of people here to support me.”
Nelson, who broke through at the end of his sophomore year with a surprising top 10 effort at State, ranked as one of the state’s most improved divers this time around. He snatched the school 11-dive record from Anolick with an upset victory at the Niles North Sectional meet and figures to go head-to-head again with Sullivan as the co-favorites to rule next year’s diving finals.
“Overall, I’m happy with how I performed. I dove OK,” Nelson said. “It was a pretty consistent meet for all 4 of us. I went into this expecting some rough scoring, but I think I’m experienced enough to know when I did a good dive. With some of the scores, though, I was second-guessing myself and asking if I really did a good dive?
“I was hoping I could perform as well as I did at the sectional, and I knew I had to shake off the bad scores. But my nerves got to me a little bit, just because it’s State and the energy in the pool is really