Championship Memories Saturday: 2020 Men's Swimming and Diving Edges Pomona-Pitzer for SCIAC Title
Typically when swimmers begin a race at the SCIAC Championships, their goals are pretty simple. The top contenders obviously want to win the race, or finish in the top three to earn their way on to the podium and receive All-SCIAC honors. Others have goals to qualify for the finals or the consolations, or swim their personal best times and finish higher than they ever have before, netting the team as many points as they can.
When the CMS men's swimming and diving team's 400-yard freestyle relay got ready to start the last race of the 2020 SCIAC Championship, their goal was even simpler than that: "Just don't DQ."
To get to that point, where merely finishing the race without a disqualification would mean a SCIAC Championship, the Stags had a four-day back-and-forth battle with Pomona-Pitzer that was exceptionally close. The standings would sometimes change from race to race and every little point made a difference, whether it be winning the race or just catching a swimmer or two in the consolation heat to finish 12th instead of 15th. The tight scoreboard led to a lot of excitement and tension over those four days.
"Oh boy was it close," said Kyrellos Ibrahim (CMC '21). "The score did not travel too far away from level during the first two days, with PP actually leading us going into the finals on Day 3. Personally, I have a bad habit of being obsessed with the numbers. I always kept track of how many A finalists and B finalists we have and they have on each given night. I run all the scenarios in my head and worry about what might happen, and that tight margin made it all the more stressful."
Some swimmers prefer to try to block out the noise of the team competition to stay locked in on their own races, but for others, it was a constant source of motivation.
"We absolutely keep tabs on the standings the whole way through," said Andreas Roeseler (HMC '21). "Every day our group chat had the 'ups and downs' as we call it, or how many people from each team are in the finals ('up') or consolation finals ('down'). This lets us know how many opportunities each team has to score each event and helps us get together to cheer for each other. Some people try to avoid thinking about 'ups and downs', but I personally think it's an incredibly helpful way to keep excitement going throughout the meet."
Ibrahim adds that he has developed a technique to help him get mentally prepared when it's time for him to race.
"I have learned from my prior SCIAC meets," he said. "I have gotten much better at centering myself before my races and blocking out distractions. This is a bit silly, but one technique I have is that I always train with my ears out of my cap. When it comes time to race, I put my ears away and my mind and body knows that the time has come to throw down. I like to compare it to putting blinders on a horse, or flipping the straps on a pair of Crocs into sports mode. I can't help but stress about the numbers, but I definitely can put it away when the time comes to race."
The stress of the 2020 SCIAC Championship was palpable from the beginning, especially since the Stags had come up short in each of the previous two years and knew they had a strong chance to take back the title in 2020. The senior class had won a SCIAC title as first-years in 2017, which was also an incredibly close meet that the Stags won by only eight points. The seniors wanted to taste that feeling of winning a title again, while for everyone else, the goal was to try to win their first one after coming up short in their previous tries.
"Earning a SCIAC title was our primary goal," said Sean Hoerger (HMC '21). "It meant everything to our team."
I think reclaiming the SCIAC title was our top priority," said Ibrahim. "We rarely really spoke about it out loud – I don't know if it was taboo or we were nervous about it, but everyone knew that this was our year and we were going to do everything we could to take back the crown. On top of that, we knew we had a great opportunity to send a powerful team to NCAAs, so there was no shortage of motivation to get in the water and train like hell."
Roeseler admitted that the title was strong motivation, but he felt a little bit like some of the tension from previous years wasn't there this time around.
"I think it was on our minds as much as it had been in previous years," he said. "But I remember there wasn't as much pressure about winning as there had been. I remember my freshman year, the team had a winning streak that went back 10 years and it was intimidating to try and keep that going. We didn't want to be the ones to ruin the streak, and I think those thoughts got to us. I know they at least influenced me. Last season I think we approached it with more excitement and didn't feel pressure from previous years since we lost. It felt like we had everything to gain and nothing to lose."
CMS earned a jolt of confidence with a dual meet win over Pomona-Pitzer in December, getting the early upper hand on their rivals with a relatively convincing 193-160 victory. The same thing happened, though, in the 2017-18 season, with a 191-161 regular season dual win, and that victory didn't carry over into the SCIAC Championships, which the Sagehens won by almost 100 points (1086-998).
"It was a great confidence boost, but we knew it was just one step on the road to a title," said Hoerger of the dual win. "The scoring format is completely different at SCIACs and everyone performs at a different level at the championship. PP, especially, always swims fast at the end of the season. While the victory was nice, it was back to the grind; we did some of our hardest training in the following week."
Ibrahim said the celebration lasted until only a minute or two into the first team meeting after the win, and then it was back to focusing on the longer journey ahead, echoing the same "grind" sentiment as Hoerger.
"Our meeting began with Coach Charlie (Griffiths) simply saying, 'Congratulations,' and we all cheered pretty wildly," said Ibrahim. "During that same meeting, Charlie and one of the seniors, Dave Makhervaks, reminded us that we had beat PP in duals before, but still came in second at the SCIAC Championships. After all, we were only in December. There was a whole winter training camp and beginning of second semester for the scales to tip. I think we all took the win as confirmation that we were on the right track, training hard, sleeping well, and staying motivated. But we all knew how crucial it was to get right back onto the grind - and to grind even harder."
Roeseler added that the team's ability to stay focused was one of its strengths all season.
"We did a good job staying in the moment and taking things one meet at a time," he said. "Prior to the PP meet everyone's focus was on winning that meet and performing, but once it was clear we were going to win all conversation switched to 'SCIACs is scored differently' and 'This is no indication for SCIACs, we've still got to be ready.' We were definitely excited with that win, but we quickly went back to focusing on the future."
The future arrived two months later, with the start of the SCIACs in February. The diving championships were held one week prior to the swimming events, with senior Kendall Hollimon providing 44 valuable points with two first-place finishes, making him a perfect eight-for-eight in his career winning SCIAC titles. Pomona-Pitzer had the 2-3-4 finishers in both events, though, and held a narrow lead heading into the swimming portion of the championship. Stag divers JD Herrera and Abai Houser, who both transferred in to the program for the 2019-20 season, also added 29 and 27 points, respectively, which would prove to be enormous in a 14-point team win.
The four-day swim meet began with a big CMS win in the 200-yard medley relay, as the Stag team of first-year Anderson Breazeale, senior Sam Willett, junior Marco Conati, and Roeseler set a new SCIAC record in 1:28.91 to earn 44 points, eight more than the Pomona-Pitzer team which finished third. Roeseler had the pressured role of anchoring the relay, which he would do three times over the course of the weekend, but it's a role which he enjoys.
"I don't think it takes anything special," he said. "I think it's actually easier than leading off because you can hear the excitement from your team as the race goes on and can use that to fuel your performance."
The 2020 SCIACs would prove how much swimming and diving championships are team championships. It isn't always how many events a team wins, but it's more about how well everyone performs top to bottom. If four swimmers enter an event and all four qualify for the finals (the top nine swimmers in prelims), that is worth more to the team total than having the individual champion, but only two swimmers in the finals.
In fact, Conati would repeat as the SCIAC champion in the 100-yard butterfly, but that was the only first-place finish that CMS would earn over the last three days, joining Hollimon's two diving titles and the medley relay as the four individual championships CMS would win in 20 events. Everything else that led to the SCIAC crown was about swimmers stepping up and doing their part, qualifying for the finals, having their best career swims, and adding to the team total little by little.
Ibrahim is a perfect example of what it takes to win a team championship. He was actually not included among the CMS scoring swimmers as a sophomore in 2018-19. Every year, CMS has to make difficult decisions of which swimmers to include on their scoring roster, while the others swim at SCIACs, but only in exhibitions that don't count towards the team total. With so many strong swimmers in the CMS program, the call often comes down to whether someone has the potential to qualify for three finals or only two, and/or how much added value someone can provide on relays. Ibrahim was one of the last ones left off for the Stags in 2018-19, but came back stronger and earned his way on to the scoring roster last winter, and he made a difference with some of his best career swims.
Ibrahim reached the finals in the 500-yard freestyle and finished eighth, giving CMS 13 points with the ninth-fastest time in program history (4:35.01). He also reached the finals in the 400-yard IM and contributed 14 points with a seventh-place finish, while also moving into the top 10 (eighth) at CMS in that category. His tenth-place finish in the 1650 in a personal-best time added 10 more points, giving him 37 points in individual events in a meet that the Stags would win by 14. The fact that his personal-best swims contributed to a big win for the program made all the difference to him.
"Absolutely they feel more rewarding," he said. "The way I see it, I would not have swam that fast if it wasn't for this grander team goal. It is a privilege to be a part of such a deep team, and to be entrusted with a spot on the scoring team means I have to do whatever it takes to swim faster and score as much as I can. In my second year, as a non-scorer, I just wanted to break into the top 10 lists. When we won last year, I didn't even know I had added more top 10 swims until Coach Charlie sent us the new list."
Ibrahim adds that while an individual's name might be added to a top 10 list or to the All-SCIAC awards, it's the product of the work the team puts in every day.
"Honestly, I don't even see those as individual accomplishments," he added. "The hours of training with my beloved D-squad and the 400 IM group enabled me to swim well because of my phenomenal teammates who pushed me so hard at every practice. I can't list all the people that helped me along the way, but the best example of this team mentality is the prelim swim of the 400 IM that got me that top 10 time. Ben Smith, Sean Hoerger, and I had trained together all year and finished with only four-hundredths of a second (0.04 s) between all three of us. If that doesn't scream teamwork, I don't know what does."
Hoerger, meanwhile, has been part of the CMS scoring roster all three years, but the 2020 SCIACs saw him have his greatest impact. As a first-year, he finished seventh, eighth and 12th in his three events (34 points), and improved that to fifth, sixth and eighth as a sophomore (44 points). This past winter, though, he earned his way onto the podium in the 200-yard breaststroke with a second-place finish, moving into fifth in CMS history, and added fourth (400 IM) and fifth (100 breast) place finishes as well, for 52 points, in a meet when every point was clearly valuable.
"Absolutely it felt even sweeter knowing those swims contributed to the team win," he said. "From a personal standpoint, this was probably the best meet of my life. I went all best times, made the championship final in all my events, and even contributed on a few relays for the first time at CMS."
For Roeseler, the 2020 championships marked his first time on the individual podium, taking a third-place finish in the 50 free to earn All-SCIAC. He has been All-SCIAC in relays a perfect nine times in three years, but was hampered by an illness prior to SCIACs as a sophomore and finished eighth in the 50 free, ninth in the 100 free and 15th in the 200 free for 29 points. Meanwhile, his third, sixth and tenth place finishes resulted in 43 points this year, a 14-point improvement, which matched the CMS margin of victory.
Those types of contributions can be found up and down the roster in everyone's individual events. Senior Sam Willett had 50 points in his three events, 11 more than he had as a junior. Senior Ben Culberson was All-SCIAC (third) in the 1650, fifth in the 500, and seventh in the 200 for 48 points in his individual events. Senior Dave Makhervaks was All-SCIAC (third) in the 100 back and contributed 43 points, while senior Henry Limm was All-SCIAC (third) in the 200 breast and had 38 points.
Conati added a third-place finish in the 100 free to his new SCIAC record in the 100 fly and contributed 50 points to the CMS total. Sophomore Walter Limm was All-SCIAC twice with two third-place finishes and totaled 51 points, sophomore Nick Tan reached three finals in the backstroke events and the IM and added 44 points, and sophomore Matthew Waddell had a finals appearance in the 200 fly and a top-10 finish in the 1650 to contribute 31 points.
Five CMS first-years also provided a major lift in their first championships. Anderson Breazeale was All-SCIAC in all three of his events, finishing second in the 100 back, second in the 200 back and third in the 200 free for 56 points, the highest individual scoring total on the team. Alec Vercruysse was sixth in the 200 IM, sixth in the 100 breast, and seventh in the 200 breast for 44 points. Ben Smith was All-SCIAC in the 400 IM in third place, and was fourth in the 200 fly, totaling 41 points. Nathan Luis was All-SCIAC (third) in the 100 fly and totaled 31 points, Thayer Breazeale earned the last spot in the nine-swimmer finals in the 200 fly, a key swim in what serves as the last individual race of the meet, and added 24 points.
Everyone's individual contributions added up, but it was still a close battle heading into the final few races. In fact, the biggest moment of all the charting of "ups and downs" was probably the 200-yard breaststroke, the third-to-last race of the meet. CMS had five ups, and no downs, while the Sagehens had only two swimmers entered, giving the Stags a huge advantage.
"I will always remember the 200 breaststroke final," said Hoerger, who finished second. "We all brought our A game, everyone going season or lifetime best times and we outscored PP by 50 points in that event."
CMS had five of the top seven, in fact, as Hoerger and Henry Limm earned All-SCIAC by finishing second and third. Willett was fifth, Walter Limm sixth and Vercruysse seventh, giving the Stags 82 points, compared to 30 for the Sagehens, and the 52-point advantage meant the SCIAC championship was suddenly close enough to taste. Pomona-Pitzer had twice as many swimmers as CMS in the next event, the 200 fly (six to three), but importantly all three Stags made the finals (Smith fourth, Waddell seventh, Thayer Breazeale eighth), so Pomona-Pitzer was only able to trim 24 points off the CMS lead with a three-swimmer advantage.
That brought it down to the final race, the 400-yard freestyle relay, and what would be one of the most memorable third-place finishes in program history. Everyone had done the math (the CMS lead was 22 after the B relay final), and even a last-place finish in the A final would be enough to win the meet by a mere two points. All the Stags had to do was finish. In other words, don't get disqualified for jumping into the pool early … and they all made quite sure that didn't happen, often waiting a comically long second or two to jump in after their teammate touched the wall.
"We were giddy with excitement going into that last race." said Roeseler, who had the honor of being the last one to safely jump into the pool. "We knew we were ahead and as long as we didn't DQ we would win, so everyone was jumping up and down and filled with energy. If you looked at us you couldn't tell that we just spent the last 4 days racing our hearts out and were exhausted."
The last relay race always brings some excitement merely as the culmination of the entire weekend, even if the scores are no longer in doubt, but this one felt different to the Stags, as the championship feeling kicked in.
"Every year, the whole team gathers behind the blocks to cheer on the swimmers for the 400 freestyle relay," said Hoerger. "My first two years, cheering on our teammates has been a bittersweet end to the meet, as PP, victory in hand, has celebrated next to us. Last year, we flipped the script. The relay team only had to complete the race without getting disqualified and the championship was ours. While we stood there jumping and cheering, it began to sink in that we were SCIAC Champions. After the relay, the whole team was hugging each other and celebrating. It felt surreal to be honest. Everyone was smiling from ear to ear."
That final relay provided the one moment that sticks out to Ibrahim from the whole four-day experience.
"I remember seeing Charlie's face during the last relay," he said. "At the anchor leg, Andreas had an incredibly safe start and Charlie knew we had won. Charlie once told me, 'I don't like losing, and I don't plan to make a habit out of it.' What I saw on his face was pure elation, and almost relief. PP did not make that meet easy for us by any metric, but when Charlie punched his fist in the air after Andreas dove in, I knew that he was so glad to be back on top."
The Stags had those same emotions themselves, which hit at different times. There was the spontaneous hugs during and after the final relay, the trophy celebration, the posing for photos, the ceremonial plunge into the pool, the post-meet pizza, and the ride home, when the team bus might as well have had wings.
"I think it took a second to sink in, almost like it wasn't real," said Ibrahim. "I had spent all week stressing about it, and we didn't know if we were going to win until Andreas dove in for the anchor leg of the last relay. After he finished I knew we had won. When they announced the scores, I knew we had won. When we took pictures on the podium, jumped in the pool, and had our team meeting, I knew we had won. It wasn't until I was on the bus that the feeling really hit me. It felt. So. Good."
"My favorite moment has to be the post-meet meeting after we won SCIACs," said Roeseler. "We get pizza delivered and sit as a clump on the stairwell and people shout out other teammate's great swims or dives that happened during the meet. Lounging all over the place, eating pizza, and complimenting each other was the perfect ending to a fantastic meet."
There were a lot of elements that made the meet fantastic. It was close the whole way through to add to the drama and the building of tension, letting the championship feeling serve as an emotional release. The seniors got to win back the title in their final meets after winning as freshmen. The other classes, meanwhile, got to experience it for the first time, including a junior class that had come short twice and really wanted to hold the trophy.
"For three years, I wanted this championship so badly," said Ibrahim. "I had been there when I was a senior in high school when the Stags scraped the eight-point win and the Athenas dominated. I was just so thrilled to finally be a part of those championship celebrations I had watched those short years before. All the sacrifices my teammates and I made during the season leading up to this meet had all the more worth - swimming with Janet Tran on the mornings we had Advanced Lab during practice, running with Mia Syme, destroying kick sets with Ben Culberson - it just all culminated into this rare and beautiful moment that I will never, ever forget."