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The stop watch always said that Aidan Dillon had the times to beat the best in the pool. But it wasn’t until Saturday that the Evanston junior broke through as a competitor.

Posting two stunning time drops, Dillon won the 500-yard freestyle race and also placed third in the 200 freestyle to lead Evanston’s state qualifiers at the Niles North Sectional swim meet.

Joining Dillon as qualifiers at next weekend’s Illinois High School Association state meet at New Trier are Rafael de Gouvea (50 freestyle) and Danny Managlia (100 backstroke), divers Harel Anolick and Trevor Nelson, and the 200 medley and 400 freestyle relay teams. That was an especially solid showing for the Wildkits, who didn’t have a single competitor turn in a time better than the IHSA qualifying standards during the regular season.

The Kits rose to the occasion Saturday and placed third in the team standings with 201.5 points, trailing only New Trier (301) and Niles North (235.5) in the 13-team field.

“We knew we had a lot of guys who were on the brink (of qualifying times) and it was just a matter of which way they’d go today,” said ETHS head coach Kevin Auger. “We had a great day today.”

Dillon’s drops stole the spotlight. He scored Evanston’s only win with a time of 4 minutes, 37.22 seconds — 14 seconds faster than his seed time — with a time that was just six-hundredths of a second off the school record held by former ETHS great Jacob Johnson.

In the 200 freestyle, Dillon cut 6 seconds off his previous best effort, finishing third in a fast field in 1:42.44. He also turned in the fastest split for the Kits in the 400 relay, at 47.32, and combined with Sean McGuire, de Gouvea, and Evan Ziolkowski for a fifth place time of 3:11.97 that beat the qualifying standard.

Shock and awe might be the best words to describe Dillon’s performance — to the swimmer himself.

“I’m really, really happy right now,” said the Evanston junior. “I knew I’d be under 1:44 in the 200, but to go 1:42 low really kinda shocks me. And the 500 was shocking, too, because I didn’t think I’d be close to the record. If my finish was a little tighter, I might have gotten it.

“This is the first time I’ve qualified for State and it feels really good. I was really happy with myself after the 200, and that gave me the confidence to do well in the 500. In the 500, I pushed myself earlier in the race than I usually do for the first 200, and I held it and kept it going to the end.

“I never knew about Johnson (who set the record in 2005) until I got to high school. His records up on our board are just crazy, and seeing those motivated me to get better. I definitely look up to him. I think this year I’ve approached any obstacles and challenges different mentally. I’m a lot stronger and more confident than I was last year.”

Auger was the one person on the deck who wasn’t surprised that Dillon showed the way for the Wildkits.

“He’s done the times (in summer competitions) and he’s certainly been one our most consistent kids as far as working hard,” Auger said. “Now he’s getting what he’s worked for, so I’m not surprised by his performance today.

“Everything is just a time on paper until you actually beat people. He’s always been able to swim the times, but usually against nobody (weaker competition).

What he had to believe was that he could beat these guys he was up against today. He dominated the competition outside of high school, and to get in the pool today and beat good competition was a hurdle for him to get over. He really showed some speed in that 200 that he hasn’t shown us before.”

Evanston opened the meet on a strong note when the 200 medley team posted a runnerup time of 1:36.69, three and a half seconds behind champion New Trier but a half second quicker than the required qualifying time. All four swimmers — Managlia in the backstroke, Thomas Fies in the breaststroke, McGuire in the butterfly and de Gouvea in the freestyle — turned in their fastest splits of the season.

Sophomore de Gouvea, still not 100 percent recovered from a severe shoulder injury he suffered last summer, placed fifth in the open 50 in 21.72. Managlia added a qualifying effort in the backstroke, taking third in 53.13.

Evanston’s list of qualifiers also included junior Aaron Holzmueller, who earned repeat trips to State in the Athletes With Disabilities competition in the 200 freestyle (4:33.92), 50 freestyle (1:02.96), 100 freestyle (2:24.16) and 100 breaststroke (3:01.59).

In diving, Anolick and Nelson both advanced out of the highest scoring field across sectional competition in the state of Illinois. Four of the divers who surpassed the 500-point plateau statewide came out of Niles North, including champion Max Royzen of Niles North (620.60 points), runnerup Anolick (ETHS school record 562.80), and fourth place finisher Nelson (510.05).

Diving coach Aaron Melnick and both Kit competitors knew that Saturday was more about positioning for next week’s state finals showdown than stressing over actually being able to qualify.

“It’s just a qualifying meet, and I told them to relax and have fun today,” Melnick said. “My intent was just to relax them a little and I think it showed with how they hit their dives today. I’m really pleased with where they are right now, and my goal is for both of them to be in the top 12 next week at State.”

Anolick broke his own school record by a whopping 30 points. The junior standout has broken the record at all three sectionals he’s competed in so far in his career, but the best may be yet to come next week.

“In the past, the sectionals have never really been an indicator of how I’d do at State, but I think this year will be different,” said Anolick, who didn’t make the 12-person finals last year. “I feel pretty confident. The state meet is a different atmosphere because your routine changes from 30 minutes between dives (during Friday’s prelims) to 3 minutes (during the second round). It can be a really weird atmosphere, but I’m excited about going again.

“Overall what every diver strives for is consistency, and today I was pretty consistent with 7.5s and 8s on most of my dives. I feel I’ve been very consistent and solid the past couple of meets, although I kinda missed my inward 2 and a half today.”

Although he expected to qualify, Nelson is still plagued by a cold he picked up on a recent ski trip to California and wasn’t 100 percent physically.

“I’m still coughing, but I’m OK,” said the Wildkit sophomore. “I think I’m in a good place right now and I’m getting more confident with my bigger (degree of difficulty) dives. Now most of my most difficult dives are in the last round, and I feel like I’ve really accomplished something when I finish strong.

“I really liked my inward and reverse dives today. They were both above average for me. My goal next week? I want to make it to Saturday.”

Dennis Mahoney is sports informatio director for ETHS.

Dennis Mahoney

Dennis Mahoney is sports information director for Evanston Township High School.

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