As a gymnast turned diver, Evanston sophomore Aryeh Lesch probably didn’t realize until now that there’s another element to his new sport — scoreboard watching.
Lesch endured some nervous moments before clinching the final diving spot for Saturday’s Illinois High School Association state swimming and diving finals at the ETHS Burton Aquatic Center and close calls also counted for the Wildkit swimmers as Brendan Long advanced in the 500 yard freestyle and the 200 freestyle relay also earned a spot in the consolation finals.
The top 6 finishers from Friday’s preliminaries will compete in the championship heats and the next 6 keep their seasons alive in the consolation heats in the season climax on Saturday. The finals begin at 11 a.m. at ETHS.
Lesch, seeded 11th in his specialty coming out of the sectional competition, was lodged in 9th place after his final dive — No. 8 — of the semifinal round. But the Evanston sophomore slipped to 10th, then 11th and finally to 12th as other competitors put up scores to change the standings.
He and diving coach Aaron Melnick finally breathed a collective sigh of relief with the realization that Lesch’s 8-dive total of 307.25 points would be enough to nail down a spot in the finals.
“I was worried the entire time,” said Melnick, who has guided divers to the finals for six straight years. “We’ve had some great divers here over the past 5 years and I’ve never had to worry about their lists, because they were looking for 2nd or 3rd place, not 6th through 12th.
“There was one dive we could have flipped (in the order of 5 in the prelims and 3 in the semis). We calculated the difference at possibly 9 points, and if Aryeh missed, then it was really on me for not having him throw it at the end (Saturday).
“But Aryeh is really good under pressure and he showed that again today. “
“It made me really nervous at first, having to watch the scoreboard like that,” Lesch admitted. “I just tried not to think about it. But after the 7th dive I realized (prematurely) I was going to make it, so I was a little more confident. Then after the 8th dive I was in 9th and I started counting the number of divers who were left, and I wondered if I’d be 12th or (non-qualifying 13th).”
Lesch’s total of 307.25 was good enough to beat out Schaumburg’s Lantz Kurzawinski (301.70) for the final spot. Defending state champion Jack Williams of Homewood-Flossmoor set the scoring pace with 393.30 points.
Now Lesch hopes to move up with two of his most difficult dives on Saturday, including a reverse 2 and a half somersault tuck dive that has a degree of difficulty of 3.0. Lesch can crack the top 10 if he’s successful on that effort and perhaps his inward 2 somersault (2.8 DOD).
“I did as well as I needed to do today,” said the sophomore standout. “In the big picture, my goal this year was to make it to the top 12. So with that already accomplished, I think I can pull that reverse off better than I did at the sectional.”
In the 500, distance ace Long crashed the state finals for the first time as a senior and did it by the slimmest of margins in the longest race. His late surge to a time of 4 minutes, 39.63 seconds that was 15-100s of a second quicker than the 13th best time of 4:39.79 record by Normal Community’s Christian Travis.
Long’s last chance to reach State — he missed out on an opportunity last winter due to illness at the end of the year — also produced a few nervous moments before the list of qualifiers was finalized.
“I wasn’t expecting it to be that close,” Long said. “I really thought I’d go a little faster today, but I really didn’t have anyone to race against in my heat. Before the race Coach (Chuck) Fargo told me I had to go 4:38 to make it, so that helped.
“It’s funny, but I was really nervous before the 200 (freestyle) but I felt good for the 500. I’ve definitely felt that sense of urgency since missing out last year. I wanted to end up on a good note, and now I definitely have.”
“Brendan paced himself and he swam a very good race while some of the others went out too fast,” pointed out Evanston head coach Kevin Auger. “I didn’t start whistling (his signal to pick up the pace) until there were about 150 yards left. He was a little off with his 28 (splits), but his last 50 was in the 27s and that’s just what he needed.
“It’s quite an accomplishment for him to make it to the finals. It’s hard to come to State for the first time and do that well.”
Evanston also squeaked into Saturday in the 200 freestyle relay, where the unit of John Martin, Charlie Herrick, Aaron Martin and Charlie Duffy combined for the 11th fastest time of 1:26 flat. West Chicago qualified at 1:26.02 after another school, Wheaton North, was disqualified at 1:26.01.
Until that solid finish, the Wildkits for the most part were unable to duplicate the significant time drops they chalked up at last week’s Niles North Sectional. John Martin (4:43.93 in the 500 freestyle, 1:56.17 in the 200 individual medley), Duffy (21.81 in the 50 freestyle), Aaron Martin (1:44.42 in the 200 freestyle) and Long (1:45.14 in the 200 freestyle) were, on average, between 1 and 2 seconds slower during Friday’s prelims.
Diver Ethan Morady was eliminated with a 5-dive total of 163.50 points, and the 200 medley relay team of Herrick, Caden Hardy, Alex Johnson and Duffy couldn’t match the school record effort of 1:35.56 and settled for a non-qualifying clocking of 1:36.81. That foursome would have had to break the ETHS record again to make the cut for Saturday, which stood at 1:35.32 for the consolation finals.