In a meet with plenty of dramatic ups and downs, Barrington was best positioned to absorb a little volatility in Saturday's Mid-Suburban League boys swimming championships.
Barrington's main challenge came early in the meet, when Wheeling's Kyle Noel and Justin Loquercio produced a stunning 1-2 finish in the 200-yard freestyle.
Combined with an unexpected second-place finish from Barrington in the meet-opening 200 medley relay, Broncos coach John Valentine thought it appropriate to bring his team together and assess the situation.
"We're a young team," he explained. "We definitely had some jitters with some of our guys, and I just felt it was case where we needed to relax a little bit."
Wheeling didn't make it any easier on the Broncos in the 200 IM, as Jake Noel won in 1:58.61 and Nate Reiff also placed in the top six.
But Barrington seniors Sebastian Piekarski and Sam Miseyka helped restore some comfort with a calming 1-2 finish in the 50-yard freestyle.
Piekarski won in 21.86, just a tenth of a second off his lifetime best. Piekarski went on to win the 100 freestyle, too, and Barrington's balanced effort eventually led to a repeat Mid-Suburban League title.
"After we settled down a little bit, it was all good," Piekarski said. "We managed to pull together, and the rest of the meet went pretty much like we hoped."
Freshmen Mitchell Gavars and Jeremy Kleinjan went 1-2 in the 500 free, and Miseyka, Colin Cross, Will Hobbs and Piekarski won the 200 free relay. Miseyka also added important points in the 100 breast.
To underscore just how young Barrington's team is, the Broncos' 400 free relay was composed entirely of freshmen -- Hobbs, Gavars, Andrew Fish and John Lagoni -- and placed fourth.
"And they did fine," Valentine said. "For us today was kind of about the termination of the dual meet season -- and the beginning of the most important part of the season."
Wheeling, by the way, stayed close the whole way in an eye-opening performance.
Barrington finished at 250 points, with Wheeling second at 213. Fremd was third (199), followed by Prospect (152), Elk Grove (103) and Rolling Meadows (101) in the upper half of the team race.
Jake Noel also won the 100 back, which he calls his favorite race, in 52.86. His earlier time and decisive victory in the 200 IM, though, was a surprise.
"I don't know where that came from, to be honest," he said of a career-best of 1:58.61.
Loquercio also scored points individually in the 500 free (4th, 5:07.71), Bryce Maczko did likewise in the 50 (3rd) and 100 frees (2nd), and the two of them joined the Noel brothers for a meet-capping victory in the 400 freestyle relay (3:18.23). Kyle Noel added a sixth-place effort in the 100 breast, Nate Reiff scored the 200 IM (5th) and 100 breast (7th), and Noah Ihde was fifth in the 50 free (23.05).
"We scored 183 points last year and finished fourth," said Wheeling coach Tod Schwager. "To be able to improve on that was the goal, but you never know.
"We had a lot of surprises -- all of them good ones."
Fremd got to its third-place finish by not having a single weak spot in the lineup. No event winners either, but in almost every event, two Vikings competitors were earning points.
Coach Kristen Newby was most pleased with the relay performances. Not only did they help make a difference in this meet, they also set the stage for subsequent efforts.
"We've been hoping all season to get some relays to state, but we needed to get a lot faster in this meet to make that a real possibility," she said. "I feel like now we're really positioned where we need to be.
"With this team, we're like a family. I liked the way we stayed together."
Leading the way for Fremd were Nick Seroni (4th, 100 fly), Roshan Rajan (3rd, 100 free), Michael Chemello (4th in 100 and 200 free) and Joey Carlisle (5th in 500 free, 6th in 100 backstroke). Connor Helsdingen finished fourth in the 50 free (22.55) and had multiple relay legs.
MSL East champ Prospect got its day started in the best possible way -- a victory in the 200 medley relay as Sam Gabriel, Nathanael Ginnodo, Michael Morikado and Carter Mau won in 1:38.62.
Knights coach Alfonso Lopez was happy to announce a superlative letter grade for the day's activities.
"A-plus," he said. "You have a relay like that at the start of a meet, it sets the expectation for the rest of it. I felt like we really fed off that the whole way."
Prospect senior Nathanael Ginnodo was key, finishing second in the 100 breast and also placing top-six in the 200 IM. Morikado cracked the top 6 in the 100 fly, Sam Gabriel was third in the 100 backstroke, and Alex Jarosz dropped tons of time for a top-six finish in the 500 freestyle.
The strength of the MSL East teams was especially evident in Elk Grove's fifth-place team finish. Though the Grens didn't win a single dual meet against their East foes, they proved more than ready for the championship format.
Junior Colin Williams swam just one individual event, the 100 fly, and won in 51.70.
Two of the Elk Grove relays broke teams records (the medley and 200 free), and the Grens' overall relay strength and a strong finish from Krystian Szczepaniak in the 100 breaststroke led to one very happy team.
"They were unbelievable," said Elk Grove coach Keith Kura. "It's hard to even put it into words -- I'm so proud of everybody."
All three Grens relays finished in the top six, with the 400 quartet of Williams, Szczepaniak, Chris Doruff and Alex Pauls taking third in 3:24.30.
More evidence of the East teams' progress came from Rolling Meadows and junior Jake Barson. He won the 100 breaststroke in 59.35.
"Definitely exceeded expectations," he said. "I was just hoping to get under the state cut here, so to go that time was a real surprise."
Barson becomes the first MSL champion from Rolling Meadows since Doug Hood in 1991, and he also gets his name on the Mustangs' team record board.
Not bad at all for a competitor who didn't start swimming until the age of 11 and only recently became a year-round swimmer.
"He's really become a student of the sport," said Rolling Meadows coach Monika Chiappetta. "I see him experimenting and really understanding that everything he does stroke-wise has an effect."
Barson also placed sixth in the 200 IM, Kuba Debkowski was sixth in the 50 free and the medley relay of Filip Pancerz, Barson, Tony Sarussi and Debkowski was fourth in 1:41.60.
Palatine's final team placement -- seventh, with 100 points -- probably deserves an asterisk of some sort.
Marcus Carter-Buckman placed third in the 200 free and seventh in the 100 free, Arnas Maciunas was third in the 500 free, Jacob Baran and Jordan Kalina both scored points in their individual races and the Pirates' 400 free relay finished fifth in 3:28.95.
The Pirates were on track for a top-five finish, but when the anchor of the 200 free relay didn't show up on the block for his leg, that relay was disqualified. A subsequent individual race opportunity for the same swimmer was scratched.
With as many freshmen as were competing in the meet -- and making a big difference in it -- something like this almost seemed bound to happen.
But a lot can change in the four-year high school swimming arc, as Barrington's Piekarski can attest.
After Saturday's meet, the conference's top sprinter was on deck and had a moment to reflect on his own freshman year. It was a reminder that early trials don't always have much to do with senior eventualities.
"They threw me in the 500 free," Piekarski said with a laugh. "I guess that's what the team needed from me."