BY PEDRO VELAZCO and BRYAN GASKINS
Tribune staff writers
Boys swimmers across Howard County hit top speed this week as the season kicks into gear. The local group will spend all winter trying to streamline their work in the pool with an eye on the big events at the end of the year — conference meets and a powerhouse Noblesville Sectional, ruled by state superpower Carmel.
As the new season begins, Kokomo’s Wildkats look to an emerging sophomore class as they hope to build on a strong fourth-place finish in last year’s sectional, where the Kats led the Howard County contingent.
Northwestern is poised to have a say on who will top Howard County this season as nearly the entire roster returns for the three-time Mid-Indiana Conference champs.
Western is building with a large group of underclassmen and Eastern hopes a small group can maintain momentum.
Asked for her initial impressions of her squad this season, Purple Tiger coach Cindy Britten spoke in all capitals.
“A-W-E-S-O-M-E,” she said while laughing. “They’re rock solid. We only lost two swimmers from last year and picked up six freshmen, and have 11 swimmers between 10th and 11th grades. And then our senior group is just outstanding. It’s just exciting, another exciting year to look ahead for what’s ahead for Northwestern.”
The Tigers had a strong campaign last time, going unbeaten in the regular season and winning their third straight Mid-Indiana Conference title.
“This team has a lot of experience,” Britten said. “They’ve come up through the ranks. Most of our seniors have swam middle school so they’ve been at it for six years. They may be three-sport athletes but they’ve been in the program so they’re hungry. They’ve been winning and they want to keep that tradition going so they’re working hard at it. They started something here and they want to finish something here.”
The senior group includes Ethan Ault, Nate Engel, Austin Hartman, Tony Janes, Austin Roberts, Drew Rush and Davis Wilkinson.
Juniors are Anthony Catt, Will DeVaul, Griffin Longshore, Kyle Miller, Jacob Schmidt and Sean Witter. Sophomores are Joel Austin, Darren Curry, Drew Harris, Aden Merchant and Michael Thibault.
The freshmen group all swam in middle school. The newcomers are Kasey Ahnert, Cameron Cothern, Will Harris, Daniel Hernandez, Christopher “Gray” Longshore, and Ethan Marks.
Breaststroke and individual medley standout Roberts, sprinter Janes and all-arounder Griffin Longshore had the top results in last season’s sectionals. Those swimmers, and the other seniors, along with sprinter and butterfly specialist DeVaul and distance specialist Miller, form the backbone of the team.
“This group, they’ve had a three-peat in the MIC, and they’re looking to four-peat,” Britten said. “That is one of their biggest goals as seniors. They’re hungry and they’ve started that tradition. They’ve won in middle school, and they’ve kept winning through high school years and now they want to go out with a four-peat. That puts a target on their back so everybody’s gunning for them, but I think they’re up for the challenge. And they’ve got underclassmen who are looking forward to that challenge.”
Northwestern opened the season with a 118-58 victory over Pioneer on Tuesday. Janes led the way as a quadruple winner.
The Katfish are loaded with potential, according to coach Jay Glick.
“We’re a young team. We have two returning seniors in Chase Jackson and Zack Phipps. We have a couple returning juniors in Josh Church and Adam Harding. And then the rest are all younger guys,” Glick said.
Kokomo has plenty of talent in the lower two grades including sophomores Nathan Banush, Blake Brookshire, John Fridley, Philip Heilman, Colton Pratt and Joey Rodriguez and freshmen Jordan Bousum, Logan Hawk and Damon Huntley.
Last season, Banush, Brookshire, Heilman and Pratt made a splash by setting a Katfish freshmen record in the 200 freestyle relay. Glick said the current freshmen are cut from the same mold.
“These guys come in with a lot of experience from middle school and some of them swim year round. They’re kind of all pushing each other in practice and it’s really fun to be around,” he said.
Glick noted the presence of exchange students in Jose Valdivia (Bolivia) and Keita Komatsuzaki (Japan) is also nice.
“They are kind of beginner swimmers, but they’re fun to have around,” he said.
Kokomo opened its season with a 115-54 victory over Manchester on Monday. Banush, Brookshire and Hawk won two individual events apiece. The Kats’ other winners included junior Andrew Davis in diving. He is new to the team.
“We looked especially strong in backstroke,” Glick said. “I think we’re pretty good all-around with these guys we have, starting at the top with our seniors. And these younger guys are pretty much all-around guys, too. I probably have six or eight guys I can put in any number of places. I just have to figure out where they belong.”
Next up for Kokomo is a home meet against Richmond and Huntington North on Saturday.
The Panthers graduated an important group from last season and have just one senior in Evan Carman, but expect to be buoyed by a large freshman class that has a lot of experience.
“We’ve got a solid group of guys this year,” Western coach Brad Bennett said. “We’ve only got one senior, but we’ve got a whole crew of guys that are really anxious to swim, really hungry.
“These guys are hungry. We’ve been swimming more yards earlier than we ever have. A couple days we’ve ended practice early because they ripped through a 6,000-yard practice. It’s going to be a very exciting season.”
The squad includes Asa Sheffer, sophomore Josh Jansen, junior Jacob Bradshaw, sophomore Jim Kelly, Adam Lyons, sophomore Aron Barrera, junior Jacob Zentz, Carman, and a pair of divers: junior Chris Cox and sophomore Christopher Kirkendall.
Leading the newcomers is talented freshman Glen Brown, the younger brother of former state champ Ted and current junior Summer. Other freshmen who could make an impact are Reggie Manuel, Brody Worl and Guy Sheffer.
“The best part about that is the [freshmen] guys have been swimming with [Glen] through middle school, kind of want to swim with him, want to be like him and train like him,” Bennett said.
He expects this group will have all its bases covered.
“We’re pretty strong distance-wise,” Bennett said. “Between Asa and Glen I’ve got two guys that can go well under 5:00 in the 500 already at this point in the season. Those two guys will swim really well no matter where. I think this will be one of the most well-rounded boys teams I’ve had in a while. I’ve also got a really nice crew of guys that can provide some outstanding depth in the lineup that we’ve been missing for a few years.”
Western swims at Harrison on Tuesday.
The Comets lost a solid bunch from last season but hope to keep moving in the right direction, with an emphasis on strong relay squads.
Eastern coach Gregg Hensler said the squad is filled with “really hard workers in the pool. We’ve got three returning seniors from last year ... that were part of the core group last year. I hated to lose four good seniors last year but this year’s upperclassmen look really good and strong.
“Individually this year, I’m hurting at the backstroke position, but the strengths are still going to be the relays. They still work really well together.”
Returning regional qualifier Aaron Klemmensen will swim and dive for the Comets as a senior. Other senior veterans are Joel Mohring and Derek Conwell. Classmate Riley Smith is new to the program.
Also on the squad are junior Kaleb Sanders, junior Lewis Duke, junior Zachary Walker, junior Shawn Tokarcik, a move-in from Taylor, junior Delon Tuggle (diving), sophomore Sam Rocchio, who was a key member of the team’s relay success last season, and junior Chris Doak.
Freshmen include Andrew Doak, Grant Hendrix, Levi Bramel and Trevor Buchanan.
“I don’t think we’ll be nearly as strong this year, but this year I put a lot of emphasis on team building,” Hensler said. “They put a lot of effort in the relay stuff. There’s a lot of individual stuff that goes with it, but they’ve put a lot of work in the team. It’s the next step in building the program up.”
Eastern swims against Hamilton Heights and Elwood on Tuesday.