Tuesday's Mid-Suburban East dual meet between Wheeling and host Hersey was an interesting exercise in the importance of numbers in high school boys swimming.
Wheeling has an unusual overall profile -- terrific, state meet-caliber swimmers at the top of the lineup, but challenged when it comes to the total number of participants.
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Hersey is the other side of that coin, with excellent participation but fewer meet-tested varsity athletes.
At Olympic Pool, Hersey made the aggregate edge work in their favor, earning a 105-81 victory.
"I was concerned about this one," said Hersey coach Dick Mortensen. "Wheeling has ways to hurt you."
Especially in a championship setting, such as last year's Mid-Suburban League meet. The Wildcats were fourth there, with standouts Bryce Maczko, Jake Noel and Kyle Noel leading the charge. Maczko and Jake Noel ended up making the state meet individually.
With most of that same Wheeling team back in action this year, the returns have been positive for coach Tod Schwager. But complicating the equation against Hersey was the fact that neither team was at full strength.
Wheeling's Nate Reiff and Noah Ihde have had limited participation recently, but Schwager hopes to have them both contributing at top levels after the holiday break. Those two will make a big difference with relays and overall depth.
"Fingers crossed," Schwager said. "Hersey swam great today, and we were just a swimmer or two short. We're definitely a better team than last year, and we hope we can show that pretty soon."
Maczko was strong in victories in the 200 free (1:54.01) and 100 free (50.85), and Jake Noel won the 200 IM (2:05.08) and 100 back (56.42). Justin Loquercio won the 500 free (5:30.85) and Loquercio, David Modlin, Kyle Noel and Maczko teamed up to win the 400 free relay (3:33.47).
Hersey, meanwhile, is starting to show it has a group of swimmers ready to join the conference's top bracket of competition.
In one key race Tuesday, junior Michael Buffa held off Kyle Noel by a tenth of a second to win the 100-yard breaststroke in 1:06.37.
Jack Carroll and Connor Reynolds finished 1-2 in the 50 free and both had legs on the winning 200 free relay (1:32.90), which edged Wheeling by two-tenths of a second. Paul Kim won the 100 fly (58.50).
And Hersey won the medley relay (David Kuntz, Buffa, Kim, Reynolds) and the 200 free relay (Carroll, Kiim, Buffa, Reynolds).
"The 200 free relay has been terrific all year for us," said Mortensen.
Also key to the outcome was a 1-2-3 sweep on the boards from Hersey divers Fenwick Tucker (169.65), Matthew Swanson (153.75) and Riley Busche (147.15).
Mortensen, too, has reason to expect better overall results from his team down the road. He was missing a few swimmers from his lineup, and Reynolds has been somewhat slowed by a lingering ankle injury suffered in his standout soccer season.
But performances like those from Buffa, who's already nearing his end-of-season times from a year ago, are helping brighten the outlook for Hersey. As part of the Huskies' state-qualifying medley relay last season, Buffa is leading the way on a team that looks hungry for success.
"It definitely motivates me," said Buffa, who's closing in on the school record in the 100 breaststroke and is a team captain. "We're working hard and trying to get ourselves positioned for where we want to be at the end of the year.
"Coach made a point to make sure we knew Wheeling was going to give us a great meet, and they did. So it's nice to be able to meet that challenge."