Evanston news delivered free to your inbox!
Aryeh Lesch didn’t go out on top Saturday at the Illinois High School Association state swimming and diving finals in Westmont.
But the Evanston senior diver definitely saved his best for last.
Lesch piled up 61 points on the final dive of his high school career and moved up from seventh to sixth place with a final 11-dive score of 485.65 points, leading the Wildkits to a tie for 12th place in the team standings with York at 32 points apiece.
Pre-meet favorite Stevenson rolled to the team title with 167 points, easily outscoring runner-up Hinsdale Central with 117.5.
The Wildkits also counted ninth-place finishes by Caden Hardy in both the 100-yard breaststroke and 200 individual medley – after he broke school records in both events during Friday’s preliminary competition – plus a seventh by Aaron Martin in the 200 freestyle and 11th place efforts by both the 200 medley and 200 freestyle relay teams.
Lesch impressed the judges on his final attempt and bettered the seventh place showing he turned in as a sophomore at state. The Illinois High School Association state meet was cancelled last year due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Lesch nailed one of the most difficult dives on his list, a reverse somersault 2 1/2 twister, to move into sixth place overall. Harrison Nolan of Riverside-Brookfield won the state title with a record 569.50 points.
The rise of the ETHS senior to among the state’s elite came in a sport he had never tried before entering high school. Lesch’s background was in gymnastics, where he was also a state finalist for the Wildkits.
The senior standout’s only regret? That he couldn’t have competed at the state finals one last time in his home pool, instead of the new FMC Natatorium facility that the IHSA chose for the event.
“It’s really nice to be able to finish with a good dive like that,” Lesch said. “I had a good meet even though I missed one dive yesterday. I can’t complain, though. I’m definitely happy with my finals.
“In four years I went from a beginner to sixth in the state, and it’s pretty cool. I definitely felt a lot more confident this year [at state] then when I was a sophomore. I found it was a lot easier to stay calm and enjoy my last state meet.
“I wasn’t thinking about places or anything like that coming into the meet. I just wanted a consistent meet – that’s all I was looking for – and then I just wanted to see where I landed.”
Lesch piled up 143.35 points over his last three dives after ranking seventh among the qualifiers coming out of the eighth-dive prelims and semis on Friday.
“He did what he needed to do,” said Evanston assistant coach Aaron Melnick. “He just dove outstanding to finish out this meet. He looked perfectly square on that last dive, and there’s nothing like a 60-point dive to finish it off.
“I’m just so happy for Aryeh. I saw improvement, and I saw a lot more confidence from him this year. His confidence level is just tremendous. He was willing to try some different things to make sure he wasn’t holding anything back by the end of the season.”
Hardy couldn’t top his swims from Friday’s prelims – but no one competing for the Orange and Blue has ever topped his efforts in the IM, breaststroke and medley relay. He broke Doug Lennox’s IM record with a clocking of 1 minute, 51.85 seconds on Friday and lowered his own school mark in the breaststroke to 56.63.
Hardy and classmate Charlie Herrick also were part of record-setting ETHS performances in the medley relay for the third year in a row, this time joined by Milo Balzer and Aaron Martin for a clocking of 1:34.79.
Even those record performances weren’t fast enough to qualify for the championship heats on Saturday. Hardy settled for a 1:51.91 in the IM, a 57.19 in the breaststroke and was unable to improve on his placing. The medley relay unit touched home in 1:35.16.
Hardy’s legacy will be seen every day in practice by future Kit hopefuls when the record board undergoes a significant change.
“I wouldn’t necessarily say I’m satisfied, but to end the year like this, I am happy,” Hardy declared. ”I guess I’m happier about the breaststroke record because I really wanted to put it out of reach. That record in the IM [an event he didn’t really focus on until this season] was more of a shock to me. It’s like whoa, I’m happy, but how did I get here?”
Hard work had a lot to do with it.
“Honestly, I wasn’t surprised. Caden’s predictable just because he works so hard,” praised Wildkit head coach Kevin Auger. “I saw the progression he made all year. I don’t think people appreciate the extra energy you need to compete in an environment like this. He swam eight races and that’s a lot of high intensity swimming. It’s grueling to come here and swim at a high level like this.
“He was in the two toughest events, along with the 200 freestyle, just to make it to the [championship] finals. You just do what you can do, the rest of the state will do their best, and you see where everybody lands.”
Martin won the consolation heat in the 200 freestyle with a time of 1:40.58, just off his prelim time of 1:40.22 on Friday. He combined with Herrick, Hardy and junior Michael Pollack for 11th in the 200 freestyle relay in 1:26.45.
Evanston’s other entrants were eliminated in the prelims. The 400 freestyle relay team fell into the “just miss” category when Hardy, Herrick, Martin and Balzer teamed up for the 13th fastest time (3:09.48) in a race where only 12 places moved on to Saturday.
Also competing for the Kits were nonqualifiers Balzer, 1:57.42 in the IM and 51.73 in the 100 butterfly; Pollack, 59.97 in the 100 breaststroke; diver Jamie Young, 177.40 points; Martin, 46.90 in the 100 freestyle; Lucas Macy, 4:46.84 in the 500 freestyle; Herrick, 52.70 in the 100 backstroke; and Cadel Saszik, 53.23 in the 100 backstroke.
“Everybody stepped up for us in various ways this weekend,” Auger added. “I thought everyone had success and did well at the end of the year.”