By the time Harel Anolick and Trevor Nelson toed the board at Saturday’s Niles North Sectional qualifying meet, Evanston’s diving program had already reached new heights.
The Wildkits scored an unprecedented 1-2 sweep of the top spots at the Central Suburban League South division championships on the freshman, junior varsity and varsity levels over the past two weeks and the fact that four different divers contributed to those efforts shows that the program’s depth has never been greater.
Then Anolick and Nelson showed that the best is yet to come. Anolick, a sophomore, shattered his own school record with a total of 539.45 points and Nelson, a freshman, surpassed the 500-point plateau for the first time en route to a 2-4 finish in the sectional field.
The pair were among 10 divers state-wide to score more than 500 points for 11 dives, and paced Evanston’s state qualifying efforts at Niles North. Joining them for next weekend’s Illinois High School Association state finals at ETHS are seniors Adrian Lafont-Mueller (50-yard freestyle, 100 freestyle) and Zach Grossman-Torres (100 backstroke, junior Thomas Fies (100 breaststroke) and all three relay teams.
“Both guys had personal bests today and you can’t ask for more than that,” said ETHS diving coach Aaron Melnick. “Across the board now we’ve got kids coming into the program who aren’t just good divers, they also have good big meet experience. They’re comfortable when they get into a big meet like this one.
“Harel was a little off today in the first part of the meet, but he figured out what he needed to do and he really stepped up. I’ve seen them both compete like that all year in big meets, even when their warmups aren’t great.”
Anolick placed second behind Loyola Academy junior Chris Canning (578.20) and qualified for the second straight year.
“It’s weird to say it out loud, because this is such an important meet, but I knew I’d make it unless I botched it terribly today,” said the Evanston sophomore. “I’ve been tweaking my dives and trying out some new techniques lately and my eye has been on State all year, because I really didn’t do well at State last year.
“Next week? I’ve been fifth at both invitationals this year (Hinsdale Central and New Trier) and I’d be happy with 5th through 8th. If I dive like I did today, I have a good chance.”
Anolick ranks third behind Canning and Lake Forest senior Alex Streightiff (590.80) coming out of the sectionals, although typically scores are lower at the state finals even under the new scoring system.
“Having a good sectional affects how you think about it, and now I know I can hit big dives,” he said. “The state meet is so different, though, because there’s a really weird energy about it. That makes it hard to relax and not be super tense.
“My scores are similar to what they were last year, but I’m far happier with the way I’m diving this year. I broke everything down and started from scratch again because I felt like my style didn’t hold up. I missed those tiny tweaks that would help me compete in the top range. I tried a new approach and a new coach. My hurdle last year was very high and it’s still not always where I want it to be. There’s a saying in diving that the hurdle is the first thing you learn, and the last thing you master, and it’s really true.
“I’m happy that Trevor did so well today — that was his highest score — and I’m really impressed by the vigor and drive of the other, younger guys in the program. I didn’t have 11 dives (list) until two years ago, and these guys have shown how they can come back even when they miss one of their dives. It can go from bad to worse quickly in diving, but they’re all so mentally tough.”
Nelson, who two weeks ago set the conference freshman record with 449.35 points, upped his scores dramatically and cracked the 500-point barrier with a 515.40 performance that clinched fourth place and an at-large state qualifying berth. He racked up 56 points on his final dive of the day to reach a personal best total.
Not bad for someone who had to beat out a returning state qualifier (Turner Dobbs) to even crack the varsity postseason lineup this year.
“After the first round and a couple of other dives, I realized I could get over 500 today,” Nelson said. “Before that I didn’t think it was achievable. I know the scoring was pretty inflated, but I dove well today.
“I’m much more confident now than I was at the start of the season and throughout the season I’ve been working on all 11 dives every day in practice. I didn’t even have 11 dives (a full list) at the beginning of the year, but as the season progressed I’ve really enjoyed how much confidence I’ve gotten. Today, I just tried to get up and down and have some good entries.
“Next week I just want to get to the finals and I’d like to get into the top 10. I think that’s possible, if I hit every dive like I did today.”
In the pool, Evanston’s swimmers rose to the occasion led by Lafont-Mueller. The Wildkits placed 2nd in the team standings with 219.5 points, trailing only New Trier (300) in the 11-team sectional field.
Not a single Wildkit swimmer had gone as fast as the established IHSA qualifying standards in any event during the season, an unusual occurrence for such a strong program. But the Kits were at their best when it counted Saturday, as even most of the non-qualifiers racked up season bests.
Lafont-Mueller showed the way with a personal best time of 47.12 seconds in the 100 freestyle, good for third place, and a 21.80 clocking in the 50 that earned fourth. He also sparked the 200 freestyle relay team to fifth place in a time of 1:27.77, anchoring a unit that included junior Evan Ziolkowski, freshman Rafael de Gouvea and sophomore Charles Davis with a speedy split of 21.17 to keep their season alive.
In the 400 freestyle relay, Evanston chopped six seconds off its seed time to earn third place in 3:12.15 behind solid splits from de Gouvea (48.83), sophomore Aidan Dillon (48.62), Ziolkowski (48.01) and Lafont-Mueller (46.69).
The Wildkits started the meet in a strong fashion as the 200 medley relay team of Grossman-Torres, senior Richard Alonso, junior Sean McGuire and de Gouvea made a splash with a third place time of 1:37.30.
Grossman-Torres came back with a time drop of a second and a half in the backstroke, his 53 flat clocking good enough to advance in third. And Fies just beat the qualifying mark of 1:00.30 in the breaststroke with a touch of the wall in 1:00.07 in fifth place.
Representing ETHS in the state finals for Athletes With Disabilities for the second straight year will be sophomore Aaron Holzmueller in the 50 freestyle (1:03.12), 100 freestyle (2:13.12) and 100 breaststroke (3:02.53).
Dennis Mahoney is sports information director for ETHS.