Caden Hardy’s school record effort in the 100-yard breaststroke event in Evanston’s only actual swim competition last year was a breakthrough moment.

But it was only recently that the ETHS senior found out that he belongs with the state’s elite.

Hardy’s growth – both physically and with his strong technique in the pool – has the Wildkits taking aim on their first top 10 state finish since 2014 as the boys swim season opens on Friday versus Loyola Academy.

Hardy leads a strong returning corps for the Kits that includes diver Aryeh Lesch, who finished 7th in the state as a sophomore, and freestyler Aaron Martin and backstroker Charlie Herrick coming off a pandemic-plagued season in which the competition was just virtual, except for the season-ending Central Suburban League South division meet.

Hardy broke Maciej Olszewski’s school mark in the breaststroke, lowering it to 58.03 seconds, at that meet. But at a recent club meet just prior to the start of the high school season, held in the same pool where the Illinois High School Association state finals will be conducted, he showed that he’s poised for an even bigger year this time around.

Now Hardy also has the school’s 200 individual medley record of 1:52.96, set by Doug Lennox in 2005, squarely in his sights after posting a time of 1:53 flat at that November club competition.

And depending on how the medley relay lineup eventually shakes out, the Wildkits could also challenge the record of 1:35.36 they established last year with Hardy showing the way.

He was also clocked in 56.8 in the 100 breaststroke but that won’t count as another mark until he accomplishes that in a high school meet – maybe as soon as Friday.

The senior standout’s progress comes as no surprise to Evanston head coach Kevin Auger.

“I’ve known Caden since he was 9 years old. I myself was only 5-foot-3 and 90 pounds when I was a freshman, and I’m not sure Caden was even that big,” Auger pointed out. “But he’s made consistent time drops all the way through, and now he’s starting to fill out [at about 5-10]. He’s gotten stronger, and he’s gotten quicker.

“He didn’t even make the club state finals until he was 14 – and then he was a finalist. He’s made steady improvement since then. He just keeps working and working. That meet [in November] was created by the club coaches and Caden wasn’t rested or tapered or anything, and the times he turned in will really give him a good jump-off to the start of the high school season.

“He finished first in the 200 breaststroke, second in the 200 IM and third in the 100 breaststroke at that meet, and what he did was huge for his confidence. Now he knows he belongs with the elite kids in the state.”

Auger is hoping the lack of actual competition last winter will be offset by the renewed focus on dryland training that he put in the program before the Kits were able to get back in the water because of pandemic restrictions.

“I thought the biggest thing they all had to do was stay fit,” he said, “so I took about 100 [dryland] routines I found on YouTube and put something together for the kids to work on. We did it non-stop for five days a week, and I think they got stronger. Hopefully, this will be a rebound year for everyone.”

Evanston’s hopes won’t rest on Hardy’s (now) broad shoulders alone. Lesch is the only athlete in ETHS history to score top 10 state finishes in both diving and gymnastics and was clearly among the top 10 divers in Illinois last year, when there was no state meet, and has added to his already impressive diving list.

Martin has dropped down below the 1:40 mark in the 200 freestyle and that’s also elite territory at that distance. He’s near the school mark of 1:38.36 set by Terry Silkaitis in 2001, a clocking that at the time ranked No. 1 in the United States.

Martin is coming off a strong junior season when he lined up for the Kits in the 200 and 100 freestyle, but has also already gone faster than the school record in the 500 freestyle. “He’s a tough kid who is used to tough races, and we’re weighing our options right now,” said Auger. “He’ll definitely get some opportunities to swim the 500 this year, too.”

Herrick placed runnerup in the CSL South in the backstroke last year and also handled that stroke for the record-setting medley relay unit. Senior co-captain Milo Balzer is setting the pace so far among butterfly hopefuls, and other seniors to watch are Nick Bradley (butterfly) and Connor McGuire (freestyle).

Junior Michael Pollack is knocking  on the door as a potential state qualifier in either the breaststroke or 200 IM – or both. He’ll also be a major contributor in the freestyle relays. He heads a junior class that also features Owen Jennings (200-500 freestyle), versatile Quentin Nguyen, diver Jamie Young and Chris Vye (butterfly).

Topping the sophomore class, and providing depth the program hasn’t seen in awhile are distance swimmers Evan Lindner, Lucas Macy and Cadel Saszik. The talented class also includes Marlon Smith (sprint freestyle), Mark Taufen (backstroke, breaststroke) and Henry Chapon (breaststroke, IM).

Help could also come from freshman challengers Jonas Nissan (fly, IM), Isaac Peng (backstroke,breaststroke) Nate Czetas (freestyle) and Will Huston (distance freestyle).