This wasn't the first time Libertyville sophomore Matt Harrington had been lined up in the lane next to Mundelein standout Connor Black. As teammates in the CATS club program in the summer, the two have had many chances to practice and race against each other.
So when they took to the blocks in the top heat of the 100 butterfly at the North Suburban Conference swimming and diving championships at Lake Forest on Saturday, it was just like another practice for Harrington.
"I race him in the fly all the time so I guess I am used to it," Harrington said. "I'm used to looking up, and there goes Connor. Just because I am used to racing against him I am able to block it all out and focus on my race."
Harrington's race was perfectly in focus as he swam to a second-place finish behind the Stanford-bound Black. His 49.92 was a personal best. Black broke the pool record set in 1994 by Tucker Shade of Decatur MacArthur in a quick 48.76.
The swim by Harrington was just a small sample of an otherwise impressive day of swimming by Libertyville. The Wildcats amassed 241 points in the team race, finishing behind defending champion Stevenson (283 points) and Lake Forest, which won the meet with 286 points. Lake Forest and Stevenson ultimately tied for the conference title by virtue of the Patriots' dual meet win over the Scouts in the regular season.
Stevenson was edged out by the Scouts in the final race of the afternoon as Lake Forest won the 400 freestyle relay (3:10.35) while the Patriots finished fourth (3:19.02).
"I think that's always what you want to see -- the meet being close like that and coming down to the very end," said Stevenson coach Greg Hartman. "It just so happened that this year, Lake Forest has a lot of great swimmers that are likely to place high at the state meet. I tip my hat to them, and if we are going to lose to a team that will place high at state, I am OK with that."
The Patriots' lone conference championship came from senior diver James Lichtenstein, who totaled 441.40 points. Teammate Blake Ripes was a solid third at 354.40.
In the pool, Stevenson's best finish came in the Nick Koto in the 500 freestyle. His time of 4:50.21 ran second to Peter Grumhaus of Lake Forest.
Libertyville and Harrington started the meet off with an impressive swim in the 200 medley relay. The group of Atticus Rush, Justin Fu, Alex Snarski, and Harrington dropped three seconds off their best effort with a second-place time of 1:36.82.
The same group rattled off a 4 second drop in the 400 freestyle relay, again finishing second to Lake Forest. The 3:11.83 clocking is well under the state qualifying mark and sets up the Wildcats in great position for the sectional next week at Vernon Hills.
"I think it was a good performance by everybody and it sets us up well for the next two weeks," said Libertyville coach Bob Groseth. "The only thing as a coach that you hope hasn't happened is that we have rested them too much. Hopefully that's not the case."
Conference champions came for the Wildcats in the 100 backstroke (Snarski, 51.01) and in the 200 freestyle relay. where Ben Snader, Eric Boynton, Fu and Rush edged top seed Warren in 1:29.63.
Despite the disappointment of the second-place finish in the relay for Warren, it was still a very good day for the Blue Devils. North Carolina-bound senior Matt Conway earned an individual title in the 200 individual medley, edging Harrington in 1:57.01. Warren finished fourth in the team standings with 207 points.
As Black took the block for his first individual swim in the 50 freestyle, everyone on the deck and in the balcony stood up to watch the race. Though he didn't achieve the pool record he aimed for, his 20.66 clocking was more than enough for the win. Black then led off the Mustangs' 400 free relay in a blistering 45.41. Black also swam the fly portion of the medley relay, joining Nick Arendt, Ayrton Kasemets and Jason Rehor for a third-place finish in 1:41. 33. Black split 21.64.
"This was a pretty successful day," Black said. "Going into the sectionals next week and state after that, I feel good."