Sports

2013 Ohio High School Swimming Championships

Chad W. Lutz
It’s 4:45am, and your alarm goes off. You roll over to hit snooze, wanting nothing more than to pull the covers back up and over your head and resume sleeping without incident, but you remember you have practice. In the next 45 minutes, you’re expected to be on deck, in a suit, goggles in hand, cap on and ready to plunge into 60-degree water to swim back and forth for an hour and a half, and this all before school. Looking back on my own high school swimming career, there’s definitely a bent sort of appeal to swimming competitively, but for roughly 150 swimmers each year, swimming means everything.

Beginning in early November, high school coaches rally their teams and recruit incoming freshman before the official season kicks off at the end of the month. Many of the swimmers train over the summers leading up to regular season practices. But the goal for most swimmers, regardless of banners or banes, is to make it to the State Swimming and Diving Championships held in Canton, OH, in February.

This year, the Swimming and Diving Championships took place Feb. 20 thru Feb. 23. Held at the C.T. Branin Natatorium, which sits adjacent to sports monuments Fawcett Stadium and Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, the Swimming and Diving Championships showcase the best swimmers in the State of Ohio. Members of teams as far reaching as Westerville to Cincinnati to Dayton, Youngstown, Cleveland, Toledo, and Columbus fight for the right to stand crowned State Champion and display their banners, shout their cheers and compete in boisterous fashion. The festivities begin with diving on Wednesday and continue Thursday with the Division II preliminaries, as well. Friday wraps up the Division II finals and begins the Division I finals, which culminate Saturday mid-afternoon.
C.T. Branin Natatorium, Canton McKinley Sports Complex, Canton, OH (idaholink.blogspot)
Although every year proves a special occasion, the 2013 Ohio Swimming and Diving State Championships proved especially occasional. Perennial powerhouses St. Xavier from Cincinnati, Akron Firestone, Toledo St. Francis, Cincinnati Ursaline and Cleveland St. Ignatius made their presence known, but it was smaller, local schools stealing the show this year. The Division I Championships met and exceeded the annual hype that builds and builds and builds to critical mass and then erupts in the cramped and crowded confines of the eight-lane Branin competition pool each year. State records fell, new champions were crowned and several outgoing seniors captured glory one final time before leaving the party behind for good.

The first event, Girl’s 200-medley relay, saw Cincinnati St. Ursaline and the outstanding Bridget Blood capture gold in a time of 1:43:27. In the Boy’s, Cleveland St. Ignatius took the gold in a time of 1:31:97, narrowly missing the state record of 1:31. 22. The meet then moved onto the Girl’s 200 freestyle in which Mason junior Zoe Thatcher outlasted Upper Arlington sophomore Gracie Long with a winning time of 1:47.43. Upper Arlington would respond with a 1st place finish from senior Joey Long in a time of 1:38.43. Joey became the first Division I repeat champion of the meet with the win.

And then came Katie Miller. You could tell from the excitement in the announcer’s voice we were all about to see something truly special. Katie was seeded a full three seconds ahead of her closest competitor, and when the buzzer sounded and the swimmers hit the water, you understood why. Katie, a senior from Akron Firestone, led by more than a body length and a half from just about the very first stroke and never looked back. She finished with a winning time of 1:57.98, eclipsing her own state record set during the prelims and besting returning champion Bridget Blood from Ursaline by nearly a five-second margin.
Akron Firestone senior Kate Miller reacts after winning the 200 IM Division I Championship (swimmeet.com)
The roar from the crowd was like fifteen Harrier jets taking off at once. It rose sharp and sudden from the capacity crowd. “Katie Miller” buzzed through a thousand lips all at once. I don’t know if I can speak for others, but a certain kind of chill, the kind you get when you know you’ve witnessed something you may never see again, crept up and pitched camp in my chest and throat. It was electric. It was exciting.

The Boy’s 200 IM event proved a much closer contest. Sophomore (you read write) Ross Palazzo from Hudson held the top seed in the final heat. The natatorium was a near hush through the butterfly and backstroke laps. Palazzo, the heavy favorite, was behind going into the breaststroke. I could see where the Hudson team was camped out from my vantage point on top of a trashcan (this is what buying the last ticket gets you) and to say the mood was tense would be an unjust understatement of biblical proportions. Everyone held hands, many of them with their eyes closed. There seemed to be an ethereal sense that Ross may not be able to do it, with the exception of coach Matt Davis who was standing silently with a slight smirk on his face, barking orders when necessary to his young star swimmer.
And then the turn. Palazzo erupted off the wall and by his third stroke had the lead by a half body length. By the time he made the final turn into his freestyle, Palazzo was a full body length ahead of the pack and easily touched out seven of the best in his event to take the state title in a time of 1:48.49, less than a second off the state record set by former Akron Firestone standout Mark Gangloff in 2000.

The next event, the Girl’s 50 freestyle, featured Massillon Jackson senior Chase Kinney. Already the state record holder after the preliminary round held Friday morning, Kinney set to improve upon her time and take home the state title in the 50 free. Hoots and hollers and jeers echoed throughout the complex. That heavy, electric feeling blanketed the crowd again as the swimmers took their marks, but there was almost no question who would win. This was Chase Kinney’s show. The star senior reached down and pulled out a 22.53, besting her 2012 championship time of 23.41, and her prelim time of 22.54. She was repeat champion and state record holder all over again.
Massillon Jackson senior Chase Kinney on her way to her second, consecutive state title in the 50 freestyle. (www.cantonrep.com)
The Boy’s 50 freestyle final included a tight race to the finish between Westerville North senior and event favorite Mason Miller and Thomas Trace of Upper Arlington. Both boys swam under 21 seconds and finished 1, 2 respectively in state-best times of 20.87 and 20.94. Nick Brodie of Toledo St. Francis placed 3rd in a time of 21 seconds flat. A mere .32 separated 1st place Miller and 8th place Gabe Whitaker (21.19) from Westerville Central.

The Girl’s and Boy’s 100 butterfly finals took place before a brief, 15-minute intermission. Pickerington Central senior Maddie Martin stood poised to recapture the state title in the Girl’s event, while Youngstown Boardman senior Ryan Bailey looked to take his first title in the 100 fly. Maddie didn’t need to match her 2012 state-record time of 53.34 to win the event, taking home the gold in 55.37 to repeat. Ryan Baily secured his state title in a winning time of 49.43, outlasting Cincinnati St. Xavier senior Ian Wooley.

The break was probably the roughest part of the meet. Natatorium already blazing from body heat and the moisture from the pools, masses of people squirming and wriggling for the exits to use the bathrooms proved almost impossible. The inside of C.T. Branin is a concrete maze. It’s almost impossible not to get lost or cramped or squeezed into some remote corner. People were using the underside of bleachers as back routes to avoid crowds and generally disregarded all wishes of natatorium staff. Kids as young as 12 ran around without parental supervision and many elderly were, for some reason, left to fend for themselves in the seas of people. The heat alone could have made anyone drop. Within 15 minutes of being there, my shirt was already beginning to stick, despite the sub-30 degree temps outside. Did I mention I was sitting on a trashcan?
Not an empty seat in the house. (www.ohsaa.com)
When competition resumed, many of the spectators were still filtering back into their seats, which made it almost impossible to see. There were times I felt like flipping my trashcan seat over (I was sitting on the lip) and standing on it to see over the swarming masses. But already furtive glances from the police officer standing to my immediate left against a concrete wall that seemed overly interested in my black bag and typically intense demeanor were enough to detour me from sticking too far out in the crowd.

The first event after the intermission was the Girl’s 100 freestyle featuring none other than her royal swimness Chase Kinney. Searching for her second state crown of the meet, Kinney leapt out to a half-body-length lead after the first flip turn and motored through the final 75 yards to just edge out sophomore Gracie Long of Upper Arlington in a time of 49.70. Long, the 2012 State Champion in the 100 freestyle, took home last year’s title in a time of 50.71. The returning champ posted a season-best 49.85, but it wasn’t enough to beat out the masterful swimming of Chase.

The Boy’s 100 freestyle played out in just as dramatic of fashion. Cuyahoga Falls senior Andrew Appleby was seeded 2nd at 46.06 just behind Firestone senior Mark Belanger (46.00). The event proved quick and when the water settled Firestone’s standout took home the state title in a blistering 45.17. Appleby, set to defend the preliminary best 49.81 in the 100 backstroke, fell to number 5 in the 100 freestyle in a time of 46.26.
Andrew Appleby of Cuyahoga Falls congratulates Akron Firestone senior Mark Belanger on his victory in the 100 freestyle (www.bath.ohio.com)
Up next was the Girl’s 500 freestyle, swimming’s equivalent of the half marathon. The race consists of 10 laps, or 20 lengths, at top speed. 200 freestyle champion Zoe Thatcher didn’t waste any time in giving the crowd something to go wild about, nearly toppling the state record of 4:45.54 and only missing the mark by a little over two seconds in a time of 4:47.81. Cincinnati St. Ursula senior Kaitlyn Ferrera took 2nd in a time of 4:51.74. Hudson’s Paige Kelly took the bronze medal in 4:54.40. The City of Cincinnati also laid claim to the Boy’s 500 freestyle championship when St. Xavier senior Jack Hendricks beat out Upper Arlington’s Joey Long by nearly a full a second, 4:27.69 to 4:28.62, for the state title.

Chase Kinney again set her sights on a state crown when she and teammates Elizabeth Graeff, Haley Loughner and Kaitlyn Daiger took the blocks in the 200 freestyle relay. With Kinney anchoring, the Jackson squad posted a time of 1:37.05. But the competition was fierce and a time that might have won the title any other given year only yielded a 4th place finish for Kinney and Co. It was the Upper Arlington squad of Gracie Long, Erin Sheehan, Grace Van Fossen and Jenny Smith that took home the gold hardware in a near-record 1:34.19. The squad from Upper Arlington set the state mark in 2011 (1:34.12).

The Top 5 Boy’s 200 freestyle relay teams featured a fairly tenured cast. Annual players Upper Arlington, Cincinatti St. Xavier, Cleveland St. Ignatius, North Canton Hoover and Mayfield captured the top spots with times ranging from a near-record 1:23.74 for Champion St. Xavier and 1:25.76 for 5th place Upper Arlington. Rounding out the Top 8 were Cincinnati Sycamore (1:26.32), Dublin Jerome (1:26.43) and Hudson (1:26:73).

Redemption came in the form of an otherworldly 100 backstroke performance from Andrew Appleby during the event’s respective championship final. First, the Girl’s 100 back saw senior phenom Kate Miller capture her second state title of the meet in a time of 54.04. Cincinnati Ursaline junior Emily Slabe, who finished 2nd in the 100 butterfly (55.43), again took home the silver in the 100 backstroke, just getting touched out by Firestone’s Miller, with a time of 54.27. The Boy’s final, as I eluded to, went to Cuyahoga Falls senior Andrew Appleby. The Ohio State-bound athlete absolutely decimated the competition, winning by nearly a full second in a time of 49-flat. It was the first state title for the Black Tiger and Northeast Ohio native, and the team’s first state champion, as well.

The 100 breaststroke saw Bridget Blood capture a seemingly allusive state title in a time of 1:03.09. The favorite to win, Blood was the 2012 Champion in the 100 breaststroke, but needed a much faster time to win last year (1:02.59). That brought Hudson’s Ross Palazzo back on the blocks for one final time. Palazzo set to work on setting the pace early and never let up. In a close finish between he, Toledo St. Francis de Sales junior Jack Berone and Derek Hren of Cleveland St. Ignatius, Palazzo emerged the victor in a time of 55-flat. Berone finished 2nd in 55.55 with Hren seriously close behind in 55.57.

With breaststroke over, all that was left were the 400 freestyle relays. The longest relay event in high school competition, each swimmer must complete 100 yards freestyle. The event often features tired and seriously fatigued athletes, especially those competing in the breaststroke immediately prior. Some of the best races at any given meet include 400 freestyle relay performances. This year’s title swim did not disappoint.

Last year, the Upper Arlington girl’s squad took home the gold in a state-record time of 3:24.24. A majority of the same team was back to recapture that title, but Cincinnati Ursaline had other plans in mind. Anchored by Alisabeth Marstellar’s 49.53, Ursaline set a new Division I record with a time of 3:23.19. Upper Arlington came in roughly three seconds later in 3:26.70 followed by Mason (3:28.84). Cleveland St. Ignatius took the Boy’s 400 freestyle relay title in a time of 3:04.86. North Canton Hoover placed 2nd with 3:05.92. Cincinnati St. Xavier took 3rd in 3:05.97.

Although a lot of the focus of the state meet shines on individual swimmers, the championships do serve to crown an overall State Champion for the year. Upper Arlington was the favorite heading into competition for Girl’s title, but Cincinnati Ursaline, behind the spectacular swimming of Bridget Blood, captured the 2013 Girl’s Ohio Swimming and Diving State Championship. Cincinnati St. Xavier, who has won 32 state titles previously, was projected to, and did, win the 2013 Boy’s Swimming and Diving Championship by a wide margin. And I couldn’t care less about them.
St. Xavier hoists the State Championship trophy after placing 1st Saturday in the overall competition. (www.cincinnati.com).