By the end of the last boys swim season, Evanston was one of the most improved teams in the state of Illinois.
After charging to a sectional championship and a 10th place finish at the Illinois High School Association state finals due to a late-season surge, the Wildkits are eyeing another top 10 finish this time around.
Although the Kits will miss graduated sprinters Joe Seguine-Hall and Christopher Russo, 5 key members of that state squad are back for Friday’s season opener versus Naperville Central.
One other potential returning state qualifier — Maciej Olszewski, who advanced in the 200-yard individual medley and breaststroke — decided to focus on training for the club season and won’t participate during the high school campaign. But veteran ETHS head coach Kevin Auger is confident that his squad will be there again on deck as participants the final day of the regular season.
“With Joe and Christopher gone, we don’t have as much freestyle depth this year, and they were the best two sprinters we’ve had at the same time since our 2006 team. The high school (state) meet is built on the sprints,” Auger pointed out. “So we lost a lot there. But at the same time, I think we can score more individual points at State this year.
“We scored the bulk of our State points in the relays (2nd in the 400 freestyle, tie for 8th in the 200 freestyle) and those points will be tough to replace. But we can definitely crack the top 10 again.”
Seniors Ryan Knohl (500 freestyle, 200 freestyle), Jake Girard (200 IM), Christian Stankovic (200 relay) and junior twin brothers Adrian Lafont-Mueller (400 relay) and Axel Lafont-Mueller (200 relay) should benefit from their state meet experiences. If preseason workouts are any indication, all five have returned quicker and stronger for another crack at state meet points.
Knohl in particular won’t lack for motivation after falling short in the state preliminaries in both the 200 and 500 freestyle. He missed advancing in the longer race by only one second and this time around doesn’t plan to leave his best in the pool at the sectional meet.
Knohl’s focus as a junior was advancing through the sectional for the first time, one explanation for the fact that he swam slower times the following week. Now, he’s an experienced senior who knows what it takes.
“He didn’t have the best state meet, but he was really only a little off,” Auger pointed out. “And he was really on for us in that last relay (combining with three teammates for a new school record in the 400 freestyle). What happened last year should give him the confidence because he knows he can be right there.
“Different kids react differently to that state meet pressure, and he was able to put his disappointments behind him and come back and do well at the end. He finished with an incredible relay split (46.5 seconds) because he got more acclimated to the atmosphere, and was more relaxed as the meet went on.
“The speed he showed us at the end of last year was really a surprise, and that’s why we were able to add him onto that relay. Now he has the speed to be in a position to score in both the 500 and the 200 at State, I think.”
Girard is a threat in the IM and just missed making it to State in the 100 breaststroke as a junior. He’s also improved as a sprint freestyler, which will boost his chances in the IM while also supplying depth in all three relay events. Stankovic flew under the radar compared to the improvement shown by both Russo and Seguine-Hall last year, but should emerge as Evanston’s main man in the 100 freestyle and in the relays.
The Lafont-Muellers both showed significant time drops last year, although Axel’s more of what Auger describes as “a drop dead sprinter” while Adrian’s focus will be on the longer freestyle races, the 100 and 200.
“We didn’t see that much improvement during the club season, but I think we’ll see huge drops from both of them now,” the coach said. “Adrian is really a hard worker and he really took off at the end of last year.”
Help in the junior class will also come from Zach Grossman-Torres, in the butterfly and backstroke, and from Quinn Tucker, a move-in from Colorado. “I think Quinn will be quite good for us in the 200 and 500,” said Auger. “He’s not quite where Ryan is — but he’s getting there. He’s a good one.”
Two other juniors who’ll lend depth are Richard Alonso (distance freestyle) and Jordan Allen (breaststroke/IM). Sophomores to watch include sprinters Evan Ziolkowski and Thomas Fies, plus Danny Managlia in the IM and Sean McGuire in the butterfly.
Freshmen Xavier Rivera, Jay Moore and Aidan Dillon could make an impact in the sprints at some point on the varsity level.
The Wildkits have two rising stars in divers Turner Dobbs and Harel Anolick. Dobbs, a sophomore, is the squad’s top returnee but figures to be challenged by the freshman Anolick.
“This is the first time since I’ve been here that we’ve had a freshman come in with some true diving experience,” Auger pointed out. “He’s already told me that he’s going to break the school record for freshmen in the first meet Friday. We haven’t had a lot of diving help the past three years, so it’s nice to see guys like this come along for us.”