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updated: 2/26/2013 9:24 PM

St. Charles North sets 3 team records at state

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By Darryl Mellema
Daily Herald Correspondent

When St. Charles North boys swimming coach Rob Rooney got around to changing the record boards at the North Stars' swimming pool this week, he had more than a little work to do.

St. Charles North set three team records during the state swim meet at New Trier. Two of the three records were set during Friday's prelims. First Austin Stepella, David Chokran, Nick Kowaleski and Kyle Gannon swam 1:34.39 in the 200 medley relay. A day later, that quartet swam only marginally slower -- 1:34.48 -- and finished fourth. That quartet set the stage for a special Saturday for the North Stars.

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"A year ago, the medley relay was what shot us in the head and I wasn't making the same mistake this year," Rooney said. "That relay -- along with the 400 free relay -- was an enormous part of the meet for us. In the state of Illinois, you have to be putting your best kids on relays. That's where the points are and that's where the stars come to shine."

Kyle Gannon also set a team record during prelims when he swam 4:29.33. He followed that by swimming 4:31.82 in finals and earned a fifth-place finish -- something he coupled with a seventh-place finish in the 200 freestyle. Gannon's distance training partner Spencer Gray finished 10th in the event.

The North Stars finished the meet on Saturday with a team record swim in the 400 freestyle relay as Gray, Kowaleski, Stephan Hutchinson and Gannon swam 3:07.51.

"I thought we had a good meet and I thought we did well to place where we did," Rooney said. "The state's pretty darned fast. There was a national record and a couple of state records set."

Those records helped propel the North Stars to an eighth-place finish, the school's fifth top 10 finish in the school's 13-year history, though a top three trophy finish or a state title have so far eluded the program.

"You need to have a little bit of luck to win a state championship," Rooney said. "Luck is everything and you need to have it lined up the right way. (State champion) New Trier has 4,000 kids in their school and 100 on their swim team. There aren't many teams in the state of Illinois that have 100 kids on their swim team. We're at a school who have 1,900-2,000 in the school and 40 on the swim team who are great men."

Of the things the North Stars have going for them -- as with the other successful teams in Illinois -- is a genuine team feeling. Rooney said this is crucial to having success not just as a prep swimmer but for those who wish to swim in college.

"The boys here understand that it's for everyone involved in the program and that it's not just one kid swimming for himself," Rooney said. "You look at two of our kids and Spencer Gray wouldn't have done what he did without Kyle Gannon and Kyle Gannon wouldn't have done what he did without having Spencer Gray."

The boys state swim meet is always dominated by seniors, but this year, that domination was just a little more widespread. Rooney said there are plenty of stars in the wings, though it will be a few years before they reach their varsity potential in high school.

"We're about four years away," Rooney said. "The 11-12 age group are rock stars. It goes in cycles and there will be some fast kids next year. The last two years, we've seen a lot of good swimming and it'll be rocking and rolling in a few years again."

St. Charles East coach Joe Cabel emphasized the number of seniors who graduated across the state this year.

"In the 200 free, if you were 21st, you're now ranked third going into next year," Cabel said. "We graduated 18 from that event this year. Three events graduated 18 this year, and that's quite a few."

Much is made of the impact Michael Phelps has had on U.S. Swimming, and no one denies that his performances in the London Olympics continue to fuel a surge in the sport's popularity. But not to be forgotten is the fact that Matt Grevers, a 2003 Lake Forest graduate, is also a world class swimmer who won twp gold medals in the 2008 Beijing Olympics and a further two gold medals and one silver medal in the London Games.

Illinois prep swimming had a record-breaking year in 2012-13. Glenbrook South's Olivia Smoliga set records in the 50 freestyle and the 100 freestyle in the girls season and Connor Black set the national record in the 100 butterfly in the boys state meet.

"We've had a huge resurgence," Cabel said. "Illinois swimming is back. We've been up and down a little bit lately. But it was a 'chill down the spine' moment when (Black) set that record in the fly. That's a crazy feeling."

As much as Smoliga and Black may have good body types for swimming, Cabel said the real secret to their success came in the training pool.

"If you want to be a Connor Black or an Olivia Smoliga, it's a 40-week deal," Cabel said. "I'm looking for a Connor or an Olivia -- and when the time comes and you spot them, you've got to be ready to make them. I don't know if it's coaching or guidance -- but there are highs and lows in the sport, and you have to be there to give them some reality and pick them up when they're down. There has to be a gradual inching forward and sometimes you have to tell them no, they're not going to go to compete in every meet every week."

Cabel said his own team had some strong experienced swimmers and a large number of young swimmers to fill the junior-varsity squad. Finding emerging varsity talent was the challenge through the season -- and the Saints found some.

"(Junior) Nick Wellman came through for us in the 400 free relay and (freshman) Devin Neisis came through in distance freestyle. We had young people and we had old people and the middle wasn't quite there. We've got to start on that next year."

Cabel reinforced Rooney's comments about how the team aspect of high school swimming benefits athletes as they move to collegiate competition.

"The high school season is 14 weeks long," Cabel said. "The college season is 28 weeks long and the longer season makes it harder to keep a team feeling together. People without a team concept, those are the ones that get dropped."

Most young swimmers don't have that sense of a team unity -- but Cabel said by the time they are upperclassmen, they have acquired that sense. For example, senior members of New Trier's 400 free relay, preparing to swim the last race on Saturday in a meet their team had already sealed, spent moments in the locker room prior to stepping to the blocks pumping each other up, chanting "Final race! Final race!"

"I think everyone struggles a little bit with the team identity when you're young," Cabel said. "Then you realize it's easier to succeed in a team framework than by yourself. Connor Black -- he still supported his teammates. He's a smart kid who's going to Stanford, but he knows what it means to be a team player."

In high school swimming, there is always turnover. No one stays beyond four years. That is the challenge and also the thrill of the sport, however.

"The exciting thing for me on Saturday," Cabel said, "is crossing out the seniors -- the old guard -- and looking at the new kids, the young guard. There's a whole new group coming in. My juniors, my sophomores and my freshmen will count down to what place they're going to get next year."

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