By JOSH SIGLER and BRYAN GASKINS KOKOMO TRIBUNE
---- — Howard County's boys swimming and diving teams have been saddled with the daunting task of heading into Hamilton County for its sectional meets in recent years, where it annually takes on the likes of juggernauts Carmel, Noblesville and Fishers.
But the county proved to be a formidable foe a season ago, with 21 returning athletes placing in the top 16 in last season's sectional meet, including 10 from Western, five from Kokomo and four from four-time defending Mid-Indiana Conference champion Northwestern. Needless to say, the future, this season in particular, looks bright.
Below are season outlooks for each team, in rank of sectional finish from a season ago.
With a nice mix of returning swimmers and divers and newcomers, the Purple Tigers are ready to go.
"Lots of experience, good leadership, and some of the new kids are coming along great," Northwestern coach Cindy Britten said. "Everyone has been working hard. They're anxious to get some competition under their belt. We travel to Pioneer [tonight] and we'll see how things go. We're looking for great things from them again this year."
The Tigers return five seniors — Anthony Catt (butterfly, backstroke), Will DeVaul (50, 100, 200 freestyle), Griffin Longshore (all-around, likely keying in on butterfly), Kyle Miller (200, 500 freestyle) and Jacob Schmidt (breaststroke, free).
"It's a good group of seniors," Britten said.
Also back for the Tigers are juniors Joel Austin (sprint free, butterfly), Darren Curry (breaststroke, sprint free), Drew Harris (free, breaststroke) and Michael Thibault (free) and sophomores Gray Longshore (all-around, likely keying in on distance events) and Will Harris. Also back is junior Aden Merchant, who is on the mend following shoulder surgery.
The Longshore brothers led the Tigers in the sectional last season. Griffin was seventh in the butterfly and ninth in the 200 IM and Gray was eighth in the 500 free and 10th in the 200 free. In addition, Griffin helped the Tigers to a fifth-place finish in the 200 medley relay and both brothers swam on a 200 free relay team that finished fifth.
The Tigers' freshman class is led by swimmers Noah Cardwell and Jacob White and divers Brayden Chou and Christian O'Donnell.
Northwestern will shoot for a fifth straight MIC championship this season. The Tigers edged Western by three points (280-277) in last season's meet.
"We're trying to stress to them that they have a target on their backs. Other teams in the conference are looking to dethrone them so they have their work cut out for them," Britten said. "It's definitely possible, it's definitely a goal, but they need to understand other teams are wanting to beat them. They'll need to work hard and I'm confident they will."
Equipped with a 31-man squad which includes three swimmers who had a hand in five MIC individual titles, Brad Bennett's Panthers are looking to contend for a conference crown once again after losing out to the Tigers by three points last season.
"We’re ready to go," Bennett said. "Our guys keep bringing up how close the conference meet was last year. That’s put a little vinegar in their blood. They're not over that and they shouldn’t be. It was a close meet that came down to not doing as well as we could’ve in a couple events. They’re ready to make that difference up in a big way, and make the most out of this season.”
Leading Western's charge is sophomore Glen Brown, who was a triple winner in the MIC meet and finished sixth or better in three events in last year's sectional. As a freshman, he was the conference champion in the 100 butterfly and 200 IM and swam a leg on the victorious 400 free relay team. He finished fifth in the 200 freestyle and sixth in the 500 free in the sectional meet.
Senior Asa Sheffer was the conference champ in the 200 free, 500 free and 400 free relay, and added an eight-place showing in the 200 free in the sectional. He and junior Connor Hill were also members of the victorious 400 free relay team in the MIC meet.
Senior Cody Cox was the sectional runner up in diving, while junior Chris Kirkendall took sixth and senior Grant Harbaugh was 14th.
Junior Josh Jansen (10th in 200 free, 14th in 200 free), Hill (14th in 50 free, 16th in 100 free), junior Matt Duke (15th in 200 IM, 15th in 100 butterfly), senior Jacob Zentz (16th in 200 IM), senior Adam Lyons (15th in 500 free), and sophomore Reggie Manuel (15th in 100 breaststroke) all return postseason-battle-tested as well.
Sophomore Guy Sheffer is also a returning letterwinner, with the breaststroke as his top event. Freshman Austin Rathbun will be in the mix to see varsity time on the springboard, while classmate Josh Everetts will also push for varsity water time.
“These guys are ready to swim," Bennett said. "They’re strong and well-rounded. The nice thing about this team is I probably have four or five guys I can put pretty much anywhere who can go head to head with many teams’ top guys. That gives me diversity.
"I’ve let them know the potential for greatness is there. That’s what we’re working for. But to be able to do that, we have to put the work in. It’s just potential unless we develop it, because I guarantee Maconaquah and Northwestern are going to be working hard to be the best they can possible be when they swim us. We have to know that and prepare for that.”
With five swimmers who return with sectional placings to their credit, the Wildkats are looking to improve upon their finish as North Central Conference runners-up last season before placing seventh in the sectional.
“We have a good number of guys back and really good leadership out of our two seniors [Adam Harding and Josh Church], along with a big returning class of juniors," coach Jay Glick said. "We’re really focusing on getting in shape and working on individual improvement. The thing I really like is we have a lot of returning guys, but we also have some new guys. Those returning guys are really being supportive of the new guys, so the guys are really coming together as a cohesive group.”
Junior Nathan Banush and sophomores Logan Hawk and Jordan Bousum return after swimming legs on the 200 medley relay team that finished eight in the sectional.
Banush took 10th in both the 200 IM and 100 butterfly, while junior Blake Brookshire also boasted a pair of 10th-place finishes in the 50 free and 100 free.
Hawk was ninth in the 100 back and 13th in the 100 freestyle, while Harding took 12th in the 200 IM and 16th in the 100 back.
Bousum took 11th in the 100 breast and 13th in the 50 free, while Banush, Harding, Hawk and Brookshire combined to place sixth in the 400 free relay.
Freshman Tyler Schorm will make his presence felt immediately as an all-around swimmer. Church and junior John Fridley will be among the top distance swimmers for the Kats, while junior Colton Pratt will join the veterans in the breast stroke, backstroke and medley events.
Glick will also feature a new crop of divers, which include sophomores Devin Shackelford and Rolando Tyler, as well as junior Jake Delrymple.
"I have a great group of guys here," Glick said. "They’re not only good swimmers, but good guys and students, as well. I like the way we’re coming together. We’ll have good versatility, but we’re seeing where we land right now. We’re looking to improve on our dual meet record and place better in the sectional. We were second in the NCC meet last year, and we’re looking to hopefully move up that last spot, but we know Anderson will be strong again. They’re still the team to beat, and we have to do our work to get up to that last spot there.”
• Kokomo beat Manchester 132-37 in its season opener Monday. Banush won the 200 free (2:00.32) and 100 fly (1:01.09). Brookshire won the 50 free (:24.27) and 100 free (:55.21). Harding won the 200 IM. Church was tops in the 500 free (6:25.44). Hawk won the 100 back (1:04.85).
Kokomo swept the relays. Hawk, Pratt, Banush and Caleb Cook won the 200 medley in 1:53.62. Schorm, Shackelford, Philip Heilman and Church won the 200 free in 1:45.87. And Hawk, Cook, Shackelford and Brookshire won the 400 free in 3:52.52.
The Comets were dealt a heavy blow before the season ever started. The squad's top returning swimmer, junior Sam Rocchio, will miss the season after tearing an ACL in his knee during football season. Rocchio, the school's record holder in the 50 free, finished seventh or better in three events in last season's sectional, where Eastern finished ninth as a team.
“We’re pretty young this year, but practices have gone very well," Comets coach Gregg Hensler said. "We don’t have a whole lot of diversity in stroke, but our sprints and relays should be well covered. Everyone has been working really hard in the pool. We’re ready for a new season, but it’s sad that Sam is not going to be back.”
Senior Charlie Doak finished 16th in the 100 butterfly in the sectional and also swam a leg on the 200 medley relay team that finished seventh. Senior Lewis Duke was a member of the 400 free relay team which finished seventh.
Freshmen Zach Eckert and Bryce Newhouse will be called upon immediately to play large roles, with Eckert leading the way in the IM and backstroke and Newhouse being among the team's top sprinters. Sophomore Trevor Buchanan and freshman Andrew Doak will be the squad's top divers.
“It’ll be a learning year for a lot of my guys," Hensler said. "Our young guys will have a learning curve that they’ll have to adjust to. So, everyone is looking forward to a new adventure of working as a team to build in our individual events and relays.”