It is far too simplistic to say that the state meet, which takes place this weekend at New Trier, is the only meet that matters in boys swimming.
But it is the meet for which all the work is aimed. Swimmers have been churning yards in practice, keeping training logs, writing down and memorizing goal times -- all with this weekend in mind.
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The regular season does matter -- and for swimmers who have not qualified for the meet that begins with today's prelims and concludes with Saturday's finals -- the next regular season is vitally important. But all eyes point to one weekend in February, when the state's fastest put on their fastest suits, shave their heads and get ready to propel themselves toward state glory.
All three of the top area teams -- St. Charles North, St. Charles East and Marmion -- have strong representation at this weekend's meet. If none of them have aspirations of lifting the state title, that's perhaps a measure of how strong New Trier's team is. But there is still plenty left to achieve.
For St. Charles North, a solid group of seniors heads to the state meet hoping to regain the top-five finish last achieved by the 2011 squad. The North Stars enter the meet as Upstate Eight Conference champions and also as the winners of the St. Charles East sectional.
"We're eager," St. Charles coach Rob Rooney said. "We're eager to compete, eager to test ourselves and eager to swim fast. We've very eager to compete this weekend."
The North Stars have all three relays qualified as well as seven individual entries. Many eyes will fall on senior Kyle Gannon, who is seeded fifth in the 200-yard freestyle and fourth in the 500 freestyle.
"He's got to back it up," Rooney said. "He's a talented kid and has a great opportunity to compete against some of the fastest kids in the country. He's got to rise to the occasion. He likes to race. He's calm and collected and that's a big part of the equation."
Gannon has been a state qualifier since his freshman year and has seen the team grow in that time back to a place where it was before he entered the program as one of the best programs in the state.
"I didn't know anything about high school swimming my freshman year," Gannon said. "It was at the East pool and I got the state cut in the 500 and I was ecstatic. I went to state and added 3 seconds or something. We didn't score any points and it didn't bother me that much. I didn't know anything. I was a freshman."
From that starting point, the North Stars have continued to grow and will be among the teams to watch this weekend.
"Sophomore year, we got fifth, which was better than I expected," Gannon said. "Last year (13th) was a big letdown. We're hoping that this year is going to be some icing on top of the cake for our senior class. We've all been together since sophomore year and we're coming together now."
Gannon, like Rooney, has high expectations for this year's state team.
"We could score in the top five," Gannon said. "We could score all three relays and have some great individual swims."
Few swimmers have much time to think about the pending conclusion of their careers. But the fact remains that from the start of the prelims to the end of the finals -- the state meet takes less than 24 hours.
"I don't think it's going to hit me until we're at the state meet," Gannon said. "The sectional was at the East pool and I swim there all the time. After the 400 free relay, hopefully Saturday, at state, I'll sit in the pool for a minute and think and it will finally come over me."
But like nearly every swimmer who has been to at least one state meet -- the experience is unique and memorable. The pool deck is always crowded, especially during prelims. It is hot, noisy and uncomfortable with 2,000 fans sitting seemingly on top of the pool deck. Yet swimmers love it.
"The state meet is what my swimming career is about," Gannon said. "That environment is by far the best environment I've ever swum in. Everybody's on top of you. The last two years, we've had all our parents and all the members of the girls team show up and I think we have the best cheering section. That helps a lot."
Like St. Charles North, St. Charles East has a strong contingent heading to the state meet. The Saints have two relays and seven individuals in competition as they hope to improve from last year's 21st-place finish.
"We're hoping to get top 12," St. Charles East senior Alec Carnell said. "This is a great team and I'm really excited about state."
Carnell is seeded 11th in the 200 freestyle and 14th in the 100 freestyle but is expected to drop time as he works through his final state meet.
"It's bittersweet," Carnell said. "It's going to be fun and I'm going to miss this, but I've still got the next four years in front of me swimming at Wright State."
Ironically fueling Carnell's confidence was the fact that he was ill at the sectional meet, which kept his times slightly higher than they might have been.
"Knowing that I made it with the health that I had (at the sectional), makes me feel really good about the state meet," Carnell said.
One of the great stories coming away from last week's sectionals concerned St. Charles East senior breaststroke swimmer Austin Muehlschlegel, the only swimmer to qualify from the second-fastest heat.
Muehlschlegel qualified for the state meet as a sophomore then just missed as a junior. He tapered for the sectional meet and qualified from the second-fastest heat. And in the sometimes unpredictable world of breaststroke swimming, he saw improvements that could be made heading into the state meet.
The breaststroke is the stroke that combines differing arm and leg motions to make a coordinated stroke. A slight re-altering of either leaves the stroke out of sync, like a car motor with a misfiring piston. Muehlschlegel said he saw ways he could smooth his stroke before today's prelims.
"I still felt a couple of things I could have fixed," he said. "My walls could have been better. I want to focus on things like that and perfect it just a little more for the state meet."
Most swimmers have gone through a two-week period of tapered rest in their training. This rest allows the athletes to regain energy they have denied themselves since November. Then at the state meet, with a season's worth of training and the regained energy -- their times drop remarkably.
Muehlschlegel tapered for the sectional meet, meaning he should not have much deep time drop remaining. However, most swimmers are able to hold their tapered time for some time after the initial large drop. So by refining his stroke, Muehlschlegel -- or any swimmer who tapered for the sectional -- may be able to find a little extra time drop in New Trier.
"My freshman year, I tapered for the sectional and didn't make the state meet and went as an alternate," Muehlschlegel said. "The next weekend was senior champs and the next week weekend after that was age-groups and I still held within a second of my taper for a good five weeks. I'm not worried about dropping time. It's definitely a possibility."
Geneva also has a qualifier for the state meet in sophomore Nathan Jesko, who qualified in the 100 backstroke.
Marmion emerged from the Neuqua Valley sectional having qualified all three relays as well as four individuals.
"We were up and down," Marmion coach Bill Schalz said "The guys who were tapered for the sectional meet had a great, great meet."
Schalz said some of the near-misses at the sectional came from swimmers who had not tapered for that meet -- including some of the swimmers who qualified for prelims. The Cadets' qualifiers include Dan Creighton in the 200 IM, Robert Ramoska in the 100 butterfly as well as Jack Fergus and Jon Thielen in the 100 backstroke.
"It was kind of a mixed bag," Schalz said. "A couple of those swims were ones we felt were 'top six capable.' I told the guys that they weren't going to wear fast suits at the sectional because if you have to wear a fast suit at the sectional, you're not scoring at state."
But especially with all three relays set to swim quickly in prelims, Schalz said a strong finish in the state meet is still possible.
"We're set pretty well for making a run on Friday," he said. "At the end of the day, we're in good shape to get ourselves a top 10 finish."
Boys swimming is dominated by upperclassmen where girls swimming always has some impact freshmen and sophomores. As a result, the core of most teams graduates every year or two. This is a year where senior leadership has been a key for the Cadets and those athletes are about to see their careers end.
"We're going to take a big hit in graduation, but you do every year on the guys' side," Schalz said. "We've got a good group of sophomores behind them. We're in pretty good shape for next year. Those guys are all going to be on deck as alternates."
As he has during the season, Schalz reiterated that not everything his seniors have added to the program has taken place in competition -- though it has been a very successful year for the Cadets heading into the final weekend.
"They provided great quality leadership," Schalz said. "They're relaxed and they're fun. They work hard."
But there is more, Schalz said. This year's seniors have displayed a style of leadership that has impressed the longtime Cadets' coach.
"It's not mean," Schalz said. "A lot of high school kids, their idea of leadership is to yell at people. These guys, you can call them out too. It's really, really been a fun year coaching. I am looking forward to these guys having a great state meet and it's going to be sad when the season's over. They really sacrificed some individual performances for the team and we really want to see them go out on a positive note."