John Martin isn’t an overnight success when it comes to the individual medley event.
The Evanston senior put in the work on a daily basis to improve in all 4 strokes and that hard work paid dividends Saturday at the Niles North Sectional swim meet.
Martin captured an unexpected sectional title in the 200-yard individual medley, and the Wildkits also scored first place finishes in diving (sophomore Aryeh Lesch) and the 200 medley relay on their way to a runnerup finish in the team standings.
More important, coach Kevin Auger’s squad claimed 8 individual spots and 2 relay berths for the Illinois High School Association state finals set for next Friday and Saturday at the Burton Aquatic Center at ETHS.
That’s the most state qualifiers chalked up by the boys program since the 2015 season, and only a disqualification in the final race of the day — the 400 freestyle relay —spoiled an otherwise perfect day for the Kit swimmers and divers.
Evanston’s surge in the first half of the meet brought about a tight 3-way battle for the team title with area rivals New Trier and Loyola Academy, two powerhouses expected to challenge for the state championship next weekend. On Saturday, New Trier totaled 112 points to 111 for the Wildkits and 102 for Loyola in the 10-team field.
The Kits had what would have been a 2nd place finish in the 400 relay wiped out when one ETHS swimmer left the blocks too early, or they would have claimed the team crown.
“It’s a little less tough to take because those guys are all still going to State in other events,” Auger pointed out. “But based on the time they swam (3:08.24), that was probably our best opportunity for a (State) finals swim.
“Other than that, our guys just went out and kept swimming fast, fast, fast, fast. I’m really happy with the way a bunch of guys swam today. The sophomores and juniors who had big drops and rested last week, came back and went even faster.”
Martin, one of just 3 seniors in Evanston’s postseason lineup, had already established as a solid distance freestyle swimmer. He increased his range of events in his final high school season and will compete at State in both the 200 IM and the 500 freestyle.
Joining him for the IHSA finals are divers Lesch and Ethan Morady, Brendan Long in the 200 and 500 freestyle, Charlie Duffy in the 50 freestyle, and Aaron Martin in the 200 freestyle. The medley relay and 200 freestyle relay teams will also make the trip to State.
Martin was seeded 2nd in the IM but the last thing he expected was to earn a gold medal. Ironically, he settled for 6th place in the 500 freestyle but advanced after beating the established IHSA time standard.
His first place effort of 1 minute, 54.73 seconds was a full 3 seconds quicker than his previous best time this season.
“I really didn’t expect this to happen today,” Martin explained. “When I looked at the seed times and saw I’d have to go 1:54, I highly doubted I could do that. But going into the freestyle leg (after the backstroke, butterfly and breaststroke) I felt I was ahead of him (top seed Everett Andrew of Loyola), and I thought then it was possible if I could just bring it home.
“I actually thought I would place higher in the 500 than the IM. I saw guys like (2018 grad) Aidan Dillon win a sectional championship when I was younger and that made me want to do something like that, too. This is a huge morale boost for me!”
Martin’s learning curve in the race, which he only dabbled in slightly in his first 2 years in the program before picking it up again as a junior, included the realization that he had to take a more aggressive approach if he wanted to earn some postseason success.
“I’ve finally learned to attack the butterfly and backstroke more. I pulled back on those two parts during the season and let my breaststroke and freestyle carry me,” he added. “I learned how to be more aggressive.”
“He was more of a 500 guy for us before, but he’s really blossomed now in the IM,” Auger said. “With his physical development, the 500 was more in his wheelhouse at first when he was younger. Now he’s stronger and his sprint freestyle has come on to the point where he led off both (freestyle) relays today. No one guessed that would happen 2 years ago.
“When you win a sectional, that means you’ve done something special, especially against this competition here. John did well last week and he rode that wave this week. It shows that he’s really put in the work this year. He wasn’t trying to relax for his senior year, he practiced every day like he was trying to prove something. He stepped up to become a leader in his (practice) lane in all 4 strokes, not just in freestyle.
“He’s performed at a higher level than anybody else at practice all year.”
Martin’s triumph in the IM and a school record performance by the medley relay team of Charlie Herrick, Caden Hardy, Alex Johnson and Duffy on their way to an upset win over Loyola got the Wildkits off to a fast start. The relay winners were clocked in 1:35.56, more than 3 seconds quicker than their performance at the conference meet the previous weekend and 2-10ths faster than the existing ETHS record set back in 2012.
Duffy’s blistering anchor leg of 20.69 clinched the win, but all 4 swimmers turned in lifetime best splits. “After they beat New Trier last week, I was a little hesitant to think they could do better this week,” admitted Auger. “But they rose up with 4 great swims. All of them were 6-10ths faster, and all 4 guys hit on all cylinders like that, it really says something about them.”
Duffy earned his second straight trip to State in the open 50 freestyle, 3rd Saturday in 21.54. Other qualifying efforts were turned in by John Martin, 6th in the 500 free in 4:42.18; Brendan Long, 3rd in the 500 free in 4:40.74 and 8th in the 200 free in 1:44.18; and Aaron Martin, 5th in the 200 free in 1:43.10.
The team of John Martin, Aaron Martin, Herrick and Duffy placed 3rd in the 200 freestyle relay, easily under the state cut at 1:26.09, a season best.
Divers Lesch and Morady continued the program’s tradition for success in their specialty with a 1-4 finish. Lesch, a sophomore, ruled the field with an 11-dive point total of 480.40 points and Morady, a junior, took 4th with 409.15 points, nailing down an at-large berth as one of the top 32 divers statewide who DIDN’T score first place finishes.
Both Wildkits recorded career bests for their 6 dive and 11 dive totals.
Lesch bounced back from a disappointing showing the previous weekend at the Central Suburban League South division meet, where he missed 4 dives and settled for a runnerup finish.
He struggled in that meet in particular with his back dives, but found the winning form again on Saturday, clicking on 10 of his 11 dives overall.
“Considering I didn’t have the meet I wanted last week, I was feeling some pressure, and people (at school) were asking me if I was going to State. I’m definitely very relieved,” Lesch said. “I knew what I was capable of. This whole season I’ve been trying to take the place of some of the divers here who have graduated, and winning a sectional is a big step for me.
“This shows me that even if I’m not at their level yet, I’m still capable of succeeding like they did. I made some changes and went from a pike to a tuck on those back dives because I completely messed them up last week. Last week I was overthinking on the jumps, and that made everything in the air fall apart. I worked on them more during the week in practice and thought about practices like they were a meet, to prepare me for the pressure of the sectional.”
Lesch is only in his second year competing in the sport and has already made a big impression on diving coach Aaron Melnick, who like Lesch combined gymnastics with diving during his high school athletic career.
“He’s the most improved diver I’ve ever had when it comes to the difficulty of his list,” Melnick said. “He’s not afraid to try new things, he’s really willing to go after it. He had a good 10-dive meet today and the other dive (reverse 2 and a half somersault tuck with a degree of difficulty of 3.0) is always hit or miss. But how many divers at State will have more than 6 or 7 good dives? Not many.”
A more confident Morady kept his season alive and now he and his teammate will get the opportunity to compete in front of a home crowd, on their home boards, next Friday at ETHS.
“This is probably the most confident I’ve ever felt in a big meet, and it paid off,” Morady said. “My first few warmup dives were pretty good today, so I knew I was on the cusp of a pretty good meet. Last week I had a bad meet but I was pretty confident today.
“My first (competitive) dive today was a little short. My second dive (forward 2 and a half somersault tuck) was one I haven’t done well in a meet. It was a little short, but I hit it pretty nice. Today was my best 6 dive score by at least 40 points and it was around 70 or 80 points better for 11 dives.”