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updated: 2/21/2013 3:12 PM

Conant's Burke pleased with pole position for 500

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  • Conant's Jonathon Burke has a word with coach Brian Drenth after cooling down following his MSL-winning effort in the 500 freestyle at Barrington.

      Conant's Jonathon Burke has a word with coach Brian Drenth after cooling down following his MSL-winning effort in the 500 freestyle at Barrington.
    Photo by Paul Reeff

  • Conant senior Jonathon Burke catches his breath while reviewing a performance with Cougars coach Brian Drenth. Burke has the top qualifying time in the 500 freestyle for Friday's state meet preliminaries at New Trier.

      Conant senior Jonathon Burke catches his breath while reviewing a performance with Cougars coach Brian Drenth. Burke has the top qualifying time in the 500 freestyle for Friday's state meet preliminaries at New Trier.
    Photo by Paul Reeff

 
 

There are no points awarded for being the top qualifier in any event for this weekend's boys swimming state championships at New Trier.

But there are certain perks to gaining such a distinction, and Conant senior Jonathon Burke is enjoying them.

Burke had the fastest effort in last week's sectionals in the 500-yard freestyle, which means in Friday's state qualifying heats, he'll have a center lane in the final heat.

That can be important, because for Burke, it's all about qualifying for finals.

Thanks to his spot, Burke will be able to watch all of the preceding heats and at least have a rough idea of how much energy he'll need to expend in order to make Saturday's final, which will feature the top six performers from Friday's action.

"It's nice," he said. "I'll be able to get a sense for what it will take to be where I want to be on Saturday."

And if all goes according to plan, Burke will be in the championship heat alongside some great swimmers.

One of them figures to be New Trier senior Reed Malone, who last year found himself next Hinsdale Central's Danny Thomson in a qualifying heat of the 500. They staged a great race, both smashing the exisiting state record. Thomson, perhaps because Malone was drawn into a tough race in prelims, won the finals heat the next day by about three seconds and lowered the state record again to 4:18.86.

Burke was in the pool for that race and finished fifth, so he has a good sense of what to expect this year. Malone's state-qualifying time last weekend was almost 20 seconds slower than his performance in last year's state meet, but everyone expects him to be much sharper this weekend.

"I'm hoping I can stay with him," said Burke. "I mean, just staying close to one of the best swimmers in the country, that would be cool."

Conant coach Brian Drenth, meanwhile, is relishing the chance to lead his senior standout through one more weekend of high school competition.

In addition to the 500, Burke is a scoring threat in the 200 free and will have legs on both of Conant's freestyle relays.

Especially on relays, Burke is the swimmer Drenth has come to rely on.

"In races, Jon is the athlete that you always want swimming if you're behind, because you know he'll give everything he's got to win," Drenth said. "Jon has been an absolute joy to coach. He doesn't know how to quit, neither in practice nor in a race."

That no-quitting policy was important early this season, when instead of churning out long-yardage practices, Burke found himself recovering from pneumonia.

After he'd regained his health, Burke returned to the formula that has worked so well for him so far -- hard work, and plenty of it.

Along with state meet teammates such as juniors Alex Shozda and Martin Pozniak, triple workouts in a single day became routine. That is, a swim practice in the morning, dryland work during free time in the school day, and a post-school practice to complete the day.

"In practice he always trains hard, then I challenge him to go harder and he always does," Drenth said. "He's made each practice a fun place to be, because I always know that I'm about to see something special happen.

"As a person, Jon is as level-headed as a high school senior could be. He excels academically and just goes about his business each school day. You would never know he's one of the fastest distance swimmers in the state, because he's not that type of person. He's humble and shows his ability in the pool."

The state will get to see that ability one more time this weekend before Burke focuses on his college choices, with Iowa and Michigan State as his main suitors at the moment.

He's come an awfully long way since his freshman year, when a chance opportunity to swim the 500 ended up changing his future.

"I felt like I was kind of having trouble fitting in," Burke said. "We needed somebody to swim the 500, and nobody wanted to do it. I mean, I was like the very last choice. So I tried it, and my time was my best by like 40 seconds. From then on, I definitely started to look at the 500 as my event."

Drenth is eager to see Burke complete his dramatic performance arc. With multiple team records, Mid-Suburban League victories and sectional championships behind him, it comes down to two more days as a high school swimmer for Burke.

"Saturday will be a sad day when he swims his last high school race and I no longer get to train him," Drenth said. "It's been a great four years."

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