After what area boys swimmers have been through over the holidays and through the early stages of the new year, an actual meet will seem like a relief.
Most programs use the absence of school to increase both the intensity and duration of practices. That tends to show up in sluggish racing performances in the early meets of January.
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Lactic acid buildup notwithstanding, as the Mid-Suburban League resumes with nearly a full slate of meets Friday, it's worth noting that there's a whole to look forward to in the season's second half.
A combination of factors has helped elevate the strength of MSL swimming as a whole, and the future for the league couldn't be brighter.
Part of the league's quantum leap forward is due to great coaching, as stable programs are getting the most out of their athletes.
Wheeling coach Tod Schwager says he still thinks there's some Olympic carryover, which tends to increase overall participation in reliable four-year intervals paired with the Summer Games.
There's a purely random component to this as well. Participation alone doesn't fully explain why swimming in a particular region can suddenly get better, especially when the overall quality of competition has risen so sharply.
Surely, some credit goes to the many clubs who have prepared swimmers to be competitive at the highest levels of high school swimming. And there's a handful of terrific performers who've made quite a splash as freshmen this season, the kind of athletes who will play a big role in how things eventually shake out at the conference meet in February. That kind of freshman impact is relatively common in girls swimming, but quite rare in boys swimming.
One thing's for sure -- everyone agrees that the conference meet this year will really be something to see.
Better competitive balance between the East and West Divisions is part of the picture.
Rolling Meadows junior Jake Barson has the area's top time so far in the 100 breast (1:02.01), and sophomore Kuba Debkowski has the third-fastest 50 free time (22.90). The Mustangs have enough skilled swimmers to have sound relays and are poised to take a big step forward.
"Can you imagine how conference is going to be this year?" asked Rolling Meadows coach Monika Chiappetta. "Just scoring points will be quite an accomplishment."
Want more evidence of the MSL East's improvement? How about this: Elk Grove's Colin Williams has the league's top time in the 100 fly (52.46). Wheeling's Jake Noel has the best 100 back time (54.42), and teammate Bryce Maczko has the top 200 free time (1:50.32). Buffalo Grove's Brandon Hausfeld has the third-best 100 backstroke time (56.67).
True enough, most of the East teams don't quite have the depth to win matchups with the better West teams. But Prospect sure looks like an exception to that rule.
The Knights host Palatine at Wheeling on Friday in a matchup of the two teams who might have improved the most since last year. Neither has lost as MSL dual so far this season.
In Palatine's case, it's a combination of steady improvement from proven varsity performers such as Jacob Baran, Marcus Carter-Buckman and Jordan Kalina coupled with difference-making freshmen Alex Bartosik and Arnas Maciunas.
For Prospect, a tightly knit team with elder brothers Nathanael Ginnodo, Michael Morikado and Sam Gabriel leading the way seems to sense that it's got a great opportunity to win the MSL East and take a big step up at the conference meet.
In other meets Friday, Barrington hosts Buffalo Grove, Hoffman Estates hosts Elk Grove, Meadows hosts Fremd, and Schaumburg hosts Wheeling.
Barrington remains a pretty clear league leader in the team picture, as a handful of top-flight freshmen have paired with state meet veterans Sebastian Piekarski, Sam Miseyka and Connor Kobida for a formidable group.
Fremd has an intriguing mix of swimmers, including the top 200 IM performance so far from freshman Nick Seroni (2:01.79). There's no shortage of talent or passion with the Vikings, and they'll undoubtedly finish as one of the league's top teams.
The overall picture, though, is one of much better balance and quality throughout the conference. It may seem simplistic in one sense, but the bottom line is that will foster better overall swimming in the area -- and that's a good thing.
The MSL hasn't placed a team in the top 10 at the state meet since 2003, when Barrington's team led by Tommy Molzahn took fifth.
Palatine came close with an 11th-place finish in '05, as current Pirates coach Kyle Sorensen won both the 50 and 100 free. And Barrington was 12th last year, with a team led by standouts Jack Strauss and Kyle Ujiiye.
With the way MSL teams performed in the first half of this season, and with the number of capable young swimmers, it seems more likely that multiple teams from the conference could end up in the top 10 in the next couple of years.
"There was year or two in there where the conference didn't even score any points at state," said Hersey coach Dick Mortensen, who's seen junior breaststroker Michael Buffa take a big step forward this season. "That sure looks like it's going to change."