If the question is whether or not St. Charles North came ready to compete in Saturday's Neuqua Valley Invitational -- the answer is an emphatic "yes."
The proof of that was in the attitude with which the North Stars went about their business in one of the season's best early-season invitationals. And the proof came at the end of the afternoon when St. Charles North claimed second place in the meet behind champion Hinsdale Central.
"I think we all came out here expecting the best," St. Charles North's Nick Kowaleski said. "I know I woke up this morning and I was thinking 'it's time, I've got to win my events.'"
St. Charles North won this meet in 2011 and had a strong of high-end swims in defense of that title. The afternoon started when Austin Stapella, David Chokran, Kowaleski and Kyle Gannon combined to win the 200-yard medley relay.
Spencer Gray was fourth in the 200 freestyle, Kowaleski won the 50 freestyle while Gannon and Gray finished first and third, respectively in the 500 freestyle. Stapella added a third-place finish in the 100 backstroke, Chokran was fifth in the 100 breaststroke and the North Stars ended the meet with a second-place finish in the 400 freestyle relay.
"We swam solid," St. Charles coach Rob Rooney said. "It was a nice effort. The kids raced with some heart, which we needed. I thought the medley relay raced well. The 400 free relay, we're searching for the fourth guy -- but we'll find one before the end of the season."
Beyond the results, the North Stars' attitudes toward their races was evident.
"We've been training hard," Kowaleski said. "I think everyone came out here with a the right kind of attitude. I think the big thing is that it's about (Gannon) or (Gray) with us and it's not just about those guys getting first's. It's about those guys pumping up a bunch of other guys, and that's what helped us through. We're a tight group and you have to lift people if they get down."
St. Charles East hovered in the middle of the pack throughout the meet and finished ninth. Will Shanel finished fifth in the 200 IM and was ninth in the 100 butterfly while TJ Bindseil took fourth in the 100 backstroke and finished seventh in the 200 IM. Alec Carnell was 12th in the 200 freestyle and 7th in the 100 freestyle.
"They're working hard but they've got to work a little harder yet," St. Charles East coach Joe Cabel said.
Of other Saints who had solid performances was Taylor Nunnery, who was 13th in the 50 freestyle and was key to his team's fourth-place finish in the 400 freestyle relay.
"He really stepped up and looked good," Cabel said.
The Saints strongest performance of the meet took place on Saturday morning in the diving competition where senior Max Schmitt finished third.
"I'm really proud of my guys," Nunnery said. "It's been a tough week of training. I think that we came out pretty hard and worked out butts off."
Nunnery said the experience gained on Saturday will pay off through the rest of the season. The Saints always swim a very competitive schedule, and the Neuqua Valley Invitational is one of the top early-season meets.
"There are really good guys what we're swimming against and it's really a good time going against that kind of competition," Nunnery said.
The Saints have gotten off to a good start this year behind one of the strongest turnouts in recent years.
"(Schmitt) is a tough kid upstairs," Cabel said. "He has it all together."
West Aurora competed with a smaller team than the other 12 schools and raced in only some of the events. The meet was still a very valuable early-season experience for coach Joe Neukirch and his squad.
"It shows the team what they're going to be swimming against at sectionals and even at conference," Neukirch said. "This is kind of a mini-warmup to those championships with the various teams we have here."
With a young team and an overall lack of club swimming experience, the Blackhawks' aims were modest. But many swimmers showed time drops and got some strong effort from many, including freshman Gabe Guillen -- who was 36th in the 200 IM and 32nd in the 100 breaststroke.
"There was fast swimming all over the place," Neukirch said. "You're seeing kids under the state cut already in the first half of the season swimming here. It's really good for them to get to race in this environment against these teams."