For the upper-level competitors in high school boys swimming, the season can seem like an exercise in sensory deprivation.
The athletes rise before daylight for morning workouts, spend the day in school before an afternoon practice or the occasional meet, and then attend to homework before collapsing and doing it all over again.
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For about three months straight.
One one hand, it almost seems subversive, a kind of sun-deprived rebellion against what most people would consider a normal way of living.
On the other hand: What better way to put a long, cold winter in the rear-view mirror?
The idea behind all that training, of course, is to increase the size of the body's energy reserves while at the same time strengthening and refining the operating systems.
The good news for the athletes -- as well as anyone who enjoys watching good swimming -- is that the result of all that work is about to be unveiled.
Starting with conference this weekend, it's championship season.
While most athletes will still be training hard and aiming to produce their top performances at the sectional and state meets the following two weeks, the Mid-Suburban League meet at Barrington will provide a glance into just how strong the conference has become in boys swimming.
Barrington is in a commanding position to repeat as overall league champs after producing a perfect dual meet record against MSL West foes. The Broncos entered the season with an edge over the rest of the league in terms of proven state-level competitors like seniors Sam Miseyka, Sebastian Piekarski, Nicholas Cogswell and Connor Kobida, and they've only added to that advantage with an impressive array of developing younger swimmers -- such as freshman Mitchell Gavars, who has the conference's top performance to date in the 500-yard freestyle, and young standouts such as Andrew Fish, Jeremy Kleinjan, Colin Cross and Colin O'Leary. The Broncos have had the top performances in all three of the relays thanks to an abundance of freestyle sprinting talent, and that kind of edge will be tough to for anybody else to overcome.
But a whole lot of teams will be trying, and that's the real draw this year. Never has the league been this balanced, nor this deep.
Cracking the top 12 in any individual event, which will translate to scoring points toward the team total, will be a huge accomplishment.
While there may be fewer sure-thing state meet point-winners in the MSL this year, the sheer number of quality varsity swimmers has gone through the roof.
That's reflected in an unofficial tracking of the top times in an event like the 200 IM, where already 20 swimmers have bettered the time it took to score points in that event at last year's conference meet.
Fremd, typically one of the league's top teams, figures to again have a big impact. Freshmen Nick Seroni and Joey Carlisle have had an immediate impact, and junior Connor Helsdingen is among the league's top sprinters. Combine them with proven sectional competitors like Nick Pappas, Michael Chemello and excellent all-around depth, and the Vikings will likely be a force again.
Prospect won the Mid-Suburban East by using superior depth to make things tough on their foes. That edge won't be as important here since each team only gets two entrants per event, but the Knights will still have strong relays and figure to get big points individually from Nathanael Ginnodo (breaststroke, IM), Michael Morikado (fly, 200 free) and Sam Gabriel (100 back).
Wheeling has been looking forward to the championship format all season long, for the same depth-related reasons. The Wildcats were fourth at last year's conference meet after struggling in duals, owing to lack of overall depth in the second and third swimmers necessary to win in the dual format. But the top end of their lineup is fierce, with Bryce Maczko, Jake Noel, Kyle Noel, Nate Reiff, Justin Loquercio and Noah Ihde leading the way.
Palatine also stands to gain from the conference format. Freshman Alex Bartosik is among the top 200 IMers in the league and will have an impact in both his individual races; sophomore Marcus Carter-Buckman has had a season of steady progress in the freestyles. Jordan Kalina, Jacob Baran and Arnas Maciunas are also threats to score points individually and will help make all the Pirates' relays -- especially the freestyles -- formidable.
Rolling Meadows is among the East teams responsible for making the league so much better. Junior Jake Barson has the conference's top 100 breaststroke time (1:01.03). He's also steadily improved in the 200 IM and leads a strong medley relay. Sprinters Kuba Debkowski and Filip Pancerz are on the verge of becoming elite MSL competitors, too, and freshman Kamil Halaj could contribute to the team total in the breaststroke.
Elk Grove has found enough quality to complement junior standout Colin Williams (fly, 200 free) and senior Krystian Szczepaniak to make a strong team showing. Those two will surely score big points, and the Grens will be chasing school records in all the relays as Chris Doruff and Alex Pauls have had a big impact on overall depth.
Hersey's top point opportunities figure to come from breaststroker Michael Buffa, butterflyer/sprinter Paul Kim and strong relays featuring sprinters Connor Reynolds and Jack Caroll.
Buffalo Grove's Brandon Hausfeld is among the league's top backstrokers, and KC Lotzer (IM, fly) and Zach Augustyn (sprints) could also help the Bison generate some numbers.
Teams such as Schaumburg, Conant and Hoffman Estates picked a tough year to be in development mode. The Saxons, Cougars and Hawks have plenty of individuals who've made big gains, and each have a handful that could make an impact -- Hoffman Estates' Bartosz Widelak, Conant's Kaz Morita and Schaumburg's Tyler Gustafson, among them.
The conference meet begins with diving -- which counts as one of the 12 events in the meet -- at 6 p.m. Friday. Once again, overall quality is the theme.
The top competitors figure to include Elk Grove's Joseph Kraemer, Buffalo Grove's Josh Opperman, Prospect's Stephen Schmit, Schaumburg's Adam Maslowski and Matt Sigler, Fremd's Ryan Klarner and Chase Jauch, Palatine's Dylan Wilken and Hersey's Riley Busche.
And then, at 1 p.m. Saturday, the meet resumes with the 200-yard medley relay.
Thanks to some floor-to-ceiling glass at one end of the pool, some actual sunlight might even penetrate the deck at Barrington -- the better to see all that good swimming.
Pay no mind to the mounds of snow in the parking lot at Barrington, and forget about the forecast for a change.
I'm calling it: Farewell, winter. Hello, championship season.