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updated: 3/2/2014 12:37 AM

Metea Valley savors 'unbelievable' finish

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  • Joe Lewnard/jlewnard@dailyherald.comJordan O'Brien, left, of Metea Valley, left, and teammate Matt Salerno stand together after finishing first and second, respectively, in the 100-yard breaststroke during the boys state swimming meet at Evanston High School Saturday.

    Joe Lewnard/jlewnard@dailyherald.comJordan O'Brien, left, of Metea Valley, left, and teammate Matt Salerno stand together after finishing first and second, respectively, in the 100-yard breaststroke during the boys state swimming meet at Evanston High School Saturday.

By Darryl Mellema
Daily Herald Correspondent

As they neared the finish of the 100-yard breaststroke, one thing was certain -- the winner was going to be from Metea Valley. Jordan O'Brien and teammate Matt Salerno edged slightly ahead of the field.

But as hands hit the wall at Evanston High School and a winner needed to be determined, something more than eye power was needed.

Fortunately the computer swiftly split the two swimmers, even though the margin was the closest possible without a tie. O'Brien won the state title in 55.88. Salerno's time was 55.89.

"I'm so happy I can't even explain it," O'Brien said. "We train so hard together. Every single practice, we push each other. This is a fitting ending, honestly. For us to be that close together is exactly what I was hoping."

The Mustangs did not swim adjacent to each other. Salerno was in Lane 2 while O'Brien was in Lane 4. So it took a split second of looking at the scoreboard to realize the achievement they both managed.

"I looked to see my time and I didn't know (Salerno) was second by so little time," O'Brien said. "I looked up a minute later and I was like, 'Oh my, that is awesome.'"

While the Mustangs have had medal winners in the past, O'Brien is the program's first state champion.

"Our swim program is doing so well, it's a confidence booster," he said.

When Salerno looked at the scoreboard, he saw he was second.

"All I was thinking was that the kid from New Trier (Jae Park) hadn't been the kid with the '1' next to his name," Salerno said. "It's just so fitting for how we've been swimming all season."

Through a series of handshakes and hugs before receiving their awards, the camaraderie between Metea Valley's breaststroke swimmers was apparent.

"This is how it is in training," Salerno said. "It's always intense, but it's always friendly. It never gets to an aggressive level."

Both O'Brien and Salerno are juniors, and their performance highlighted a day in which the Mustangs finished seventh behind first-time state titlist Normal University High.

"That was unbelievable," Metea Valley coach Mark Jager said. "Until you get there, you don't know for sure. It's fantastic and I'm really happy for the boys."

But the day was full of solid swims. Salerno was third in the 50 freestyle; the school's 200 medley relay, which included O'Brien, Salerno, Trevor Sandberg and Alex Dillmann, finished third. Of these swimmers, only Sandberg graduates this year.

Naperville Central finished fourth, a strong performance by one of the state's perennial powers. Connor Lamb was the highest-scoring swimmer. He was fifth in the 100 IM, an event in which teammate Scott Piper was seventh. Lamb was also 10th in the 500 freestyle. Piper followed his IM swim with a sixth-place finish in the 100 backstroke.

"I was real pleased with my 200 IM yesterday and wanted to come back a little stronger," Lamb said. "It is what it is. I went a little faster in the 500 today, but the heat got a lot faster."

Lamb and Piper combined with Phillip Sajaev and Eric Gerlach to swim to fourth in the 200 medley relay while Christian May, Liam Coakley, Connor Walsh and Erich Gerlach were fourth in the 200 freestyle relay. May, Piper, Gerlach and Lamb concluded the meet by swimming to ninth in the 400 freestyle relay.

The overall Redhawks performance hearkened to recent trophy-winning days for the program.

"When I was a freshman, we were coming off the state championship in 2010," Lamb said. "That year we were second to a great New Trier team, maybe the best team they ever had, in 2011. Then last year, we were just not good. I was the only individual scorer. For me to be able to bring this team close to where it was when I was a freshman -- I think they're going to go places."

One of the state's long-time coaches retires at the end of this school year, and Hinsdale Central's Corky King exited with his team having finished third.

"Our kids swam with a lot of passion and a lot of heart," King said. "We were a little flat at sectionals. But they felt they were going to swim fast here at state, and they did."

A native of Alton and a coach for many years at Peoria Richwoods, King leaves a strong legacy at Hinsdale Central -- and the school's fans chanted his name at the end of the meet.

"Thirty-eight years of teaching and 37 of coaching and there's never going to be a good time to go," King said. "I love the kids and it's going to be a pretty good team next year, and I'll come back to watch them. I had a great bunch to go out with."

Wheaton co-op swimmer Max St. George finished eighth in the 200 IM but returned to finish fourth in the 100 backstroke.

"That was a first for me at state," said St. George, a Wheaton North junior. "Last year I didn't even final. I was like 6-0 and 130 pounds. I was a rail, and then I gained like 30 pounds and I'm 6-2."

Having qualified for the state meet two years in a row, St. George has a simple goal for the 2015 state meet.

"I want to win -- I want to win next year, there's no doubt," he said.

Neuqua Valley finished 18th, led by a sixth-place finish by Drew Dvorchak in the 100 butterfly. Dvorchak was 10th in the 100 backstroke. The Wildcats' medley relay was eighth while the 400 free relay finished 12th.

Waubonsie Valley's Michael Schwers was 10th in the 100 butterfly while Lake Park's Sean Gregor was 11th in the 200 freestyle.

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