Saturday turned out to be moving day for the Evanston swimmers and divers participating at the Illinois High School Association state finals at the Burton Aquatic Center.
And no one showed more upward mobility than diver Aryeh Lesch.
The Evanston sophomore climbed to 7th in the final standings in his specialty, and teammate Brendan Long (500-yard freestyle) and the 200 freestyle relay team also improved their final positions coming out of Friday’s preliminaries.
It all added up to a 24th place finish in the team standings for the Wildkits in what could be the last state finals conducted in their own pool. The IHSA is considering moving the event to a private facility in the future and is taking bids to that effect.
In a three-way battle in the taut team race, St. Charles North scored 137 points and won its second straight title over Loyola Academy (135) and pre-meet favorite Glenbrook South (128).
After claiming the final qualifying spot in the 500 freestyle on Friday, Long moved up to 11th place with a Saturday effort of 4 minutes, 41.76 seconds in his consolation heat. And the 200 freestyle relay team of John Martin, Charlie Herrick, Aaron Martin and Charlie Duffy jumped from 11th to 9th with a time of 1:26.04.
But the headliner for the Kits was someone who never competed in the sport until he started high school, and now ranks among the state’s elite.
Ranked 12th after the preliminary competition — and only 12 divers advance from Friday to Saturday —sophomore Lesch made the most of his opportunity and climbed past the competition at a dizzying rate.
His final score of 442.25 points was the product of successful efforts on two of the most difficult dives on his list on Saturday, with the degree of difficulty helping push him to 7th place. Homewood-Flossmoor’s Jack Williams repeated as the state champion, totaling 544.20 points and breaking the pool record of 537.45 set by former ETHS great Trevor Nelson last year.
Lesch wouldn’t go so far as to claim that he “nailed” the first of his three Saturday dives, a reverse 2 and a half somersault tuck with a degree of difficulty of 3.0. But he made enough of an impression with the judges panel to score 49.50 points, giving him a welcome boost in the individual standings.
He followed with a combined 85.50 points on his last two dives and finished exactly 10 points ahead of a diver he lost to twice during the season, Glenbrook South sophomore Nick Tarantino.
“Right now, I’m very relieved and excited,” said Lesch after earning his first State medal in only his second year of competition in the sport. “I exceeded the goals and the expectations I had for myself today. I’m really happy that I was able to get up to the middle of the pack.
“That’s the best I’ve ever done that reverse 2 and a half in competition. My hurdle wasn’t as solid as I wanted it to be, but it was still good enough. I was really nervous about it, but once I hit it that really set the tone for the rest of the day.
“Watching guys like (2019 grads) Trevor Nelson and Henry Goodman, and knowing how good Evanston diving has been in the past has been an extra motivator for me to keep that up. Last year I didn’t consider myself a state-type diver, and I thought maybe by my senior year I could work my way up to it. But as the season went on and I improved, and won a few dual meets, I realized placing at State was possible.”
His coach, Aaron Melnick, wasn’t convinced that Lesch could make a big enough move from Friday’s prelims and semifinals to Saturday’s finals to make that big a difference.
“I didn’t see any chance of Aryeh moving up that far,” Melnick suggested. “There was a group I knew he could catch, if he took it 1 dive at a time, because I thought he had the degree of difficulty to catch up. I told him I saw him anywhere between 8th and 12th. So he came out and he WON 7th place.
“Today he looked nervous during the warmups and he only asked me one question. He said will all of these people still be in the stands when I compete? I said most of them will stay to watch 36 good dives — and 3 of those dives will come from you!
“I was expecting on 4.5s (from the judges) on that reverse and he got 5.5s instead. He was in shock and in awe of how well he did that first dive and he got the hard one out of the way first. The one thing that stands out to me about Aryeh is his ability to focus, even in practice. He thinks it through beforehand and focuses on what he wants to do, and that normally doesn’t happen, especially in practices. And no matter what his ability level is when he starts out, a diver like that will be a good one.”
Consistency and mental toughness were attributes Lesch’s teammates relied on to finish on a high note.
Long, a senior, wasn’t able to duplicate his prelim time of 4:39.65 but still moved up past Lake Forest’s Colin Kingsley to score an 11th place finish.
And the consistent foursome of Martin, Herrick, Martin and Duffy was only 4-10ths off their prelim performance of 1:26 flat and pushed their way to 9th overall when it counted most in the 200 freestyle relay.
Sophomore Aaron Martin turned in the best split Saturday, at 21.31, to conclude a strong showing over a 3-week period that began back with the Central Suburban League South division championships for the quartet.
“We preach all year long that we’re going to really light it up at the sectional,” said ETHS head coach Kevin Auger, “but we also want to swim fast over a period of time, not just be one and done. And these guys really bought into that. We were consistent with our times and got a little bit better with our places as a result.
“We were able to move up by repeating our times and we had a different person swim their best each time. It’s more mental than it is physical and you just tell yourself to go hard again and again and readjust each time. Every other team in that relay heat was slower today, and it’s more about racing and competing on Saturday. This is where the mental toughness comes in.”
John Martin’s progress from a distance-dominant swimmer to a quicker version as a senior resulted in his landing the key role of leadoff swimmer in both freestyle relays for the Kits.
“The last 3 times John has done a great job of leading us out. He developed a dolphin kick underwater and he just became a good sprinter for us,” Auger praised. “He has improved with big time drops every single year. It’s his technique that really helped him speed up this year.
“I thought both sophomores (Aaron Martin and Herrick) were extremely impressive this weekend, too. For them to be able to compete like that mentally as sophomores, and perform like that was really something to watch.”