In deepest, darkest January, Prospect's boys of summer reveled in the bright glow that accompanies a conference champion.
The Knights, bleached blonde to signify the beginning of the end of the boys swimming season, topped Hersey 105-81 on Thursday at Olympic Pool to complete an unbeaten run through the Mid-Suburban East and claim the school's first divisional championship since the 2002-03 season.
A big percentage of this Prospect team has spent its summers competing as Rec Racers at Recreation Park in Arlington Heights as part of the Interpark swimming program, in which neighborhood teams compete against one another.
What makes this group of Rec Racers unique is the deep family thread running through the team. Prospect families with multiple siblings having benefited from their Rec Racers past include the Ginnodos, the Gabriels, the Cullitons, the Jarosz's and the Morikados.
And those names sure loomed large against Hersey, which had won its previous four MSL East duals and had its own opportunity to win the division title.
"We had a lot of our older guys make the decision and then the commitment to be better," said Prospect coach Alfonso Lopez, "and when those guys have two or three younger brothers on the team, it's a lot easier to pull the younger ones along. As much as we've had great leadership, it's the younger ones that made us much more difficult to swim against."
• Prospect's Nathanael Ginnodo won the 200-yard IM (2:08.88). Hersey's Paul Kim had a terrific swim to finish second in 2:09.96, but younger-brother Knights Alex Morikado and Isaac Ginnodo finished third and fourth.
• In the 100 fly, Prospect's Michael Morikado won, with Sam Gabriel and Ryan Lakner going 3-4.
• Michael Morikado won the 200 free, with Nick Partipilo and Alex Jarosz finishing 3-4.
• In the 100 breast, Nathanael Ginnodo won and Isaac Ginnodo was third.
That kind of dominance in the strokes was important because Hersey had an advantage in the sprint freestyles. Connor Reynolds and Jack Carroll went 1-2 in both the 50 and 100 freestyles and they joined Kristiyan Donov and Michael Buffa on the winning 200 free relay (1:33.57). Hersey also edged Prospect in the medley relay as David Kuntz, Buffa, Carroll and Reynolds pulled out a narrow victory in 1:44.04.
But those were about the only big point swings in Hersey's favor, owing to Prospect's overall lineup balance.
"It's tough," said Hersey coach Dick Mortensen. "Swimming against them, it kind of feels like you're ping-ponging around. You can make a lineup adjustment, but it doesn't necessarily help. We gambled a couple times, and it only ended up hurting us."
The teams split the 16 points from diving, as Prospect's Stephen Schmit won with 213.10 and Anthony Liva placed fourth. Hersey's Riley Busche (200.00) was second, with Matthew Swanson third and Tucker Fenwick fifth.
Prospect's Alex Morikado, Alex Jarosz and Jack Gabriel -- all onetime Rec Racers -- produced the meet's only 1-2-3 finish in an individual event, the 500 free.
"Alex is really making the 500 his race," said Lopez. "Last year he was 5:40-something in the 500 and about 2:28 in the 200 IM. Now he's around 5:20 in the 500 and, what, 2:15 today in the 200 IM? That's a huge jump."
Even though a divisional title was hanging in the balance, the meet even had the feeling of a neighborhood summer meet.
Mortensen was an assistant coach at Prospect when Lopez was a senior standout competing for the Knights.
And Lopez, a junior high teacher in the area, has great first-hand familiarity with the swimmers in Hersey's lineup.
"I think I picked out seven kids I taught," said Lopez, "so that makes a meet like today special for me in a different way."
Mortensen, too, found that one of his more conventional pre-meet psyche-up tactics didn't exactly pan out as planned.
"I was telling my guys, 'You've got to get angry, get mad, get motivated for this meet,' " said Mortensen, "and they're like, 'Coach, they're all nice guys.' And you know what -- they're right. So that kind of backfired on me.
"I've got nothing but good things to say about Prospect. Congratulations to them."
With only Friday's meets left on the duel-meet slate before varsity conference in a couple of weeks, it's been a wildly entertaining season for all the East combatants. Just about every matchup was close, as teams tried to take advantage of their strengths and minimize their weaknesses while the entire division took a big step forward.
Symbolic of that progress is a swimmer like Prospect's Sam Gabriel. He immersed himself in more serious training away from the high school season. He's now one of the better backstrokers in the league and regularly contributed big team points in a second individual event, usually the 100 fly.
On deck at Olympic after the meet, he summed up the secret to his success.
"For me, it was just working harder," he said. "More yardage, higher intensity, more often."
So, after Michael Morikado, Jake Holycross, Carter Mau and Nathanael Ginnodo sealed the outcome by winning the 400 free relay in 3:35.24, a series of individual commitments to excellence had resulted in one heck of a team achievement.
Making it even sweeter was that Prospect felt like it missed out an opportunity last season, when a narrow loss in its own pool in the final duel of the season spoiled its chance for a divisional title.
"I really do think everything happens for a reason," said Lopez. "We learned some hard lessons last year, and because of the makeup of our team, I think those lessons were able to feed into our newer kids pretty easily.
"It's been a fun season to watch."