The members of the Evanston Township High School boys swimming and diving team spent half of the month of December like fish out of water.
Now they’re going to dip into the biggest tank available.
The Wildkits scored their first sectional team championship since 2015 Saturday at Niles North, and secured qualifying spots for all three relay teams and 12 individuals for next weekend’s Illinois High School Association boys state finals, set for the first time at the new FMC Natatorium in southwest suburban Westmont.
How fast was Evanston on Saturday? The Wildkits set three new school records – and two of those marks came in races they DIDN’T win.
Aaron Martin (200-yard freestyle, 100 freestyle), Caden Hardy (200 individual medley, 100 breaststroke), Lucas Macy (500 freestyle) and diver Aryeh Lesch all claimed individual victories as ETHS wiped out runner-up Loyola Academy by a margin of 305 points to 253 for the Ramblers in the 12-team field. Both teams are ranked in the top five in the state.
First-place finishers in each event automatically advanced to state, while the others beat established qualifying time standards set by the IHSA.
Evanston registered second place finishes in the 200 medley relay (school record 1:35.12), 200 freestyle relay (1:26.62), and 400 freestyle relay (3:10.21), trailing Loyola in all three races.
Joining those squads as individual qualifiers are Charlie Herrick, second in the backstroke in a school record 52.10; Michael Pollock, second in the breaststroke in 59.33; Milo Balzer, third in the individual medley in 1:56.23 and third in the 100 butterfly in 51.60; Cadel Saszik, third in the backstroke in 52.71; and diver Jamie Young, who earned an at-large berth with a career-best score of 421.95 points after placing fourth.
No matter what happens next weekend in Westmont – and the Kits could be in the hunt for a team trophy with the right breaks – the 2021-22 campaign will stand as a tribute to what hard work and perseverance can make possible, even under circumstances that aren’t ideal for producing fast finishes at the end of the season.
Don’t forget that ETHS shut down its entire athletic program, including practices and competition, when the coronavirus pandemic reared again in the Evanston community right before the Christmas break.
Head coach Kevin Auger and his staff weren’t allowed to conduct workouts for close to two weeks at the Burton Aquatic Center and had to find creative measures that would keep their swimmers engaged and in shape.
“We were fish out of water – literally – but fortunately it didn’t last very long,” said Auger, who was named Coach of the Year in the sectional by a vote of his peers Saturday. “The first day out of the water we actually did a Zoom dry-land workout, and then the second day, we did it again.
“I still had PTSD from the previous year [when no state finals were held]. We were praying and praying that we’d just be allowed back in the water. I’m so happy for our kids, especially the seniors, that we were able to get this season in and qualify for state. It’s a true blessing. Everybody we thought could get through, got through, and we’ve had a really good end of the season.”
Evanston’s swimmers scattered around the area to work out and keep in shape wherever they could find an empty lane in a pool. And if the “layoff” had an adverse effect, it wasn’t obvious on Saturday.
“Swimming in the high school season [as opposed to club season], we emphasize the matchups and trying to win [meets] more than times,” said Martin, who won the 200 freestyle in 1 minute, 42.06 seconds and came back to rule the 100 freestyle in 47.14, both season bests. “Working out just with a friend isn’t as intense as a regular practice. A big part of our training is competing, and I’d take times I had in practice [before the pandemic hit] and try to race against myself.
“There were some limited spots at the YMCA but you had to wake up pretty early to get there, and you only had an hour then. It definitely was not the same.”
Hardy, who joined Martin in most of their December workouts, lowered his own school record in the 100 breaststroke (to 57.61) and took top honors in the individual medley in 1:54.24. “We know we’re in good shape, so really it was more of a mental thing,” he said. “But it’s daunting not to be in the water.”
The senior standout recently committed to Marist College and credited his efforts in the individual medley this year for earning the notice of college recruiters and turning him into a more accomplished all-around swimmer.
“This year I’ve done a lot more training on all four strokes,” Hardy noted. “Kevin [Auger] pushed me to become a more well-rounded swimmer because that’s what the college coaches are looking for, and it paid off. That’s what caught their eye.
“It wasn’t easy and I was very uncomfortable with some of the other strokes. The breaststroke has been No. 1 for me since I was about 9 years old. But it’s worked out pretty well.”
“Caden is an elite swimmer in the backstroke and breaststroke, and he’s worked diligently on his fly and freestyle,” said the ETHS coach. “He just keeps improving and today he was our second-fastest on the 200 free relay [split of 21.3].”
Macy, a sophomore, was already partly tapered and rested when he recorded an 8-second time drop in the 500 freestyle at the Central Suburban League South division meet. Saturday, he joined a pretty short list of sophomores at ETHS who have achieved both league and sectional titles in any race in the same season.
His winning time of 4:45.30 was just off his time at the conference meet, and the ability to extend a taper – the time leading up to a competition when swimmers decrease their training volume while increasing their rest – has combined with an uncanny sense of pace plus a fierce desire to race to put the rest of the distance challengers in Illinois on notice that he’s only tapped his potential to date.
“I wanted to go faster today, but it’s OK. I can do it again next week,” said Macy after keeping his season alive. “I’m pretty confident right now and I trust the coaches when it comes to my taper.
“I wanted to get the sophomore [school] record and I got it last week, and I wanted to get my name up on that record board. I wanted the state cut, too, and I got that. There’s a meet I want to go to in March in Florida that’s at the next level and I need a 4:39.59, so that’s my goal next week.”
Coach Auger won’t be surprised if he gets there.
“For him to swim that well the last two weeks is really something – and I think he’ll do this well or better at state,” the coach predicted. “He’s a great racer, and today he took control of the race about halfway through and he knew he’d win. Most guys in the 500 have to learn how to push in the middle of the race, but Lucas already has that in him. That’s what makes him a great racer.”
Lesch, who placed seventh at state as a sophomore, dominated the diving competition with a winning total of 556.35 points. He only missed the school record by about 7 points Saturday and “settled” for a career-best effort instead.
“I didn’t think I’d get that close to the school record, and it would have been cool to get it,” he said. “But the scoring at the sectional is always a little different.
“I wasn’t really happy with the way I dove at conference [third place with a score of 463.10], but having a good sectional gives me a lot more confidence now. My most difficult dive is the 2½ inward. It was a little shaky during the season but now it’s coming together. I didn’t hit it perfectly today, but it felt comfortable in the warm-ups and in the competition.”
“Aryeh was solid today and Jamie Young had the meet of his life,” said ETHS assistant coach Aaron Melnick, who was recognized as the Coach of the Year in diving. “We’re not changing anything up for Aryeh at state. We’re very confident with his DD [degree of difficulty dives] in the right places and he’ll get scored better by the [state meet] officials than he was by coaches.
“It will be hard for him to break into the top three, but anything can happen.”