Even in a state loaded with great swimming, this year's boys high school state meet is shaping up as a very special one.
With so many non-seniors winning races last year, many of the defending champions will be back in action Feb. 23-24 at Evanston Township High School.
In five of the eight individual races, the winner will return -- a much higher number than normal in what is usually a senior-dominated discipline.
And in the cases where there were senior winners last year -- Glenbrook South's Sam Iida in the 200 IM and 500 free, Franco Reyes in the 100 fly -- there are plenty of candidates waiting to step forward.
In the fly and IM, that includes Hersey senior Michael Petro, who finished second last year in both.
The sprint freestyles feature Stevenson junior Topher Stensby, who won the 50 free last year and lost by an eyelash in the 100 free to Cincinnati-bound St. Viator senior Michael Balcerak.
Balcerak, long a standout at about any freestyle distance, has made steady gains in other events, especially the butterfly.
"He can really swim almost any event for us," said St. Viator coach Sam Wilcher. "He has quite an assortment of events that he could swim at state."
On the strength of their standout seniors, both Hersey and St. Viator cracked the preseason top 20 team ranking assembled by Swimming In Illinois, with Hersey at No. 13 and St. Viator at No. 14.
Among the other top competitors back in action: Peoria Richwoods senior Colton Paulson, who won the 200 free last year and also excelled in the 500 free, finishing second behind Iida (now competing at Arizona).
The 500 free final also included Lyons Township junior Spencer Walker, who returns to defend his state title in the 100 backstroke.
The top teams, according to Swimming in Illinois, are New Trier, Lyons and Hinsdale Central.
For starters: If you're looking for a great way to begin the season, consider visiting -- or perhaps contributing in a more tangible way -- at Fremd on Friday, as Hersey visits the Vikings in a matchup of two of the MSL's top teams.
The meet will function as Hersey's annual fundraiser for A Soldier's Journey Home, and all of the dollars raised will go directly to the effort to build a home for Sgt. Eric Morante.
For more information visit the website for A Soldier's Journey Home.
Donations can be mailed as well, to: John Hersey High School, Attn: Dick Mortensen, 1900 East Thomas, Arlington Heights, 60004.
Meet market: Here are some more great dual-meet viewing options for the season ahead.
Friday, Dec. 8 -- Buffalo Grove vs. Rolling Meadows (at Elk Grove)
Friday, Dec. 15 -- Palatine at Fremd
Thursday, Dec. 21 -- Rolling Meadows vs Hersey (at Prospect)
Friday, Jan. 12 -- Hersey at Schaumburg
Friday, Jan. 19 -- Prospect vs. Hersey
Friday, Jan. 26 -- Fremd at Barrington