Swimmers’ Success Has Been By Epic Proportions

From left, Charlie Krebs, Kyle Lucas, Xander Spees and Austin Hertenstein stand together as the St. Marys swimmers are recognized during halftime of Tuesday’s non-league boys basketball game between the Roughriders and Troy.
By: 
JAKE DOWLING
Sports Editor

Just how good are the four St. Marys swimmers who are competing at the state level on Thursday?

The Roughriders not only finished runners-up in this year’s Western Buckeye League boys swim championship, they put a chink in the armor of the historically elite boys teams in the league and all of that is credited by the boys determination, passion for the sport and from the coach who has turned a once afterthought of a program into a near powerhouse.

“I thought we would be at this point,” St. Marys swimmer Kyle Lucas said. “We thought that we could potentially get a relay and we knew we were going to be right there.”

Four swimmers — who reside in a football-loving city — will be swimming at Canton on Thursday — in a town known for its football history. But from St. Marys to Canton, these four boys have broken that long-standing tendency — at least for one year.

Lucas — the lone junior — and three sophomores — Austin Hertenstein, Charlie Krebs and Xander Spees — will each be swimming in the boys 200-yard medley relay on Thursday, while Lucas will also be competing in the 100 breaststroke. 

The Division II state semifinals are Thursday, with the finals being Friday.

But the achievement of making it this far has been just a couple of years in the making. 

When Lucas was a sophomore, he had a nice team with him with Hertenstein, Krebs and Spees as freshmen. The foursome made their presence known with a fourth-place finish in the league championship — its highest finish in the WBL since the 2005-06 season. 

All four also swim in St. Marys’ summer swim team, the Seahawks, and Lucas dropped out of his fall sport this season to focus more on swimming, and the results have been impressive. Lucas added that he and Spees swim at least 10 hours a week in the water.

“Kyle and I are on a separate team for the Y so we basically swim all year round,” Spees said. “Charlie and Austin are on the summer team and practice every weekday morning and have meets about twice a week.”

The Roughriders did something that no other team outside of Shawnee, Celina, Wapakoneta and Ottawa-Glandorf has done since 2010-11 — finish in the top three in the league this season.

“Only three schools have ever won; Celina, Shawnee and Wapak and it is always those three teams that make it first, second and third every year,” Lucas said. “So to be able to crack into that was really exciting.”

Shawnee has won 10 WBL titles, followed by nine from Celina and two from Wapakoneta. Since the 2011-12 season, a combination of those three teams and O-G have finished in the top three in the league every season and dating back to the 2004-05 season, only those four teams and Van Wert have finished in the top three.

“They are dominant,” Lucas added.

But the Roughriders broke through, they broke the norm, they put a visible chink in the armor of those historical elite teams and the best part, they pushed Celina out of the top three this year.

However, that feat — finishing runners-up for the first time in the program’s history — almost didn’t happen. The boys said that the runner-up spot came down to the final race as the Roughriders squeaked past O-G with 220 points compared to the Titans’ 211.

“It actually blew my mind that we made history and we were fighting for the last second for that spot,” Spees said. 

Then came sectionals, which Hertenstein said that everyone goes to the sectional tournament, but that there are different levels of competition.

“Districts wasn’t hard to make  for us because it usually separates the people who are there to just swim compared to the people who are there to compete for the sport,” he said. “Once you make it to districts, it is a lot harder if you are not working hard or you don’t have the raw, natural talent.”

The Roughriders squeaked by again, with the medley relay team qualifying for state with a time of 1:42.82 for eighth place at the Division II Northwest District Swim Meet — qualifying by .10th of a second. The medley relay team is seeded 23rd out of 24 in the state.

“In the start of the season, that was my majority goal was to take something to state and I am glad we got to do that,” Spees said. 

“It felt like all of our hard work had paid off,” Lucas said when describing how they felt after finding out that they qualified. “It wasn’t just, ‘we are going to districts again,’ we were swimming decent and we got to move on. That was exciting.”

Lucas also qualified in the breaststroke with a time of 1:00.99 — resetting his own school record and achieving a YMCA National Cut and he is seeded 15th out of 24 swimmers in the breaststroke heading into Thursday. But the junior added that districts leaves little room for error.

“It is super competitive,” he said. “First through eighth place in our districts were probably a second and a half a part and we qualified eighth, but fourth through 16th was probably separated by four seconds.

“Had one of us messed one thing up, that makes the difference. Had we done one slight thing better, that might put us in third place at districts and top 10 in the state, or if we would have messed one thing up, we might have finished 15th at districts and not even be close to making it to state.”

But the boys said that the one person who deserves all of the credit is coach Katie Szymczak. 

Szymczak — along with her husband Craig — the head coach of the boys basketball team — came to St. Marys in time for the 2015-16 school year. Katie is a Celina native. 

Since here arrival, however, she has turned a boys program that was ninth in the WBL just two years ago to fourth last season and second this year. The boys also credit her for getting them to state — becoming the first St. Marys swimmers to do so since 2012-13.

“She doesn’t get enough credit,” Lucas said. “She has a lot of people who have varying skill levels — obviously, we are not at the same level as some of the kids — so she has to coach of all of us by herself.”

Hertenstein added that aside from being the school’s lone swim coach, she is the lowest paid swim coach in the league.

“In addition to that, our practices are shorter than everyone else’s and to be able to put practices together and come out with the success we have, she deserves a lot of credit,” he said.

Lucas said that Szymczak has swimmers who are just learning to swim as well as the more gifted swimmers such as her relay boys team that she has to coach at a high level.

“For her to be able to juggle that, it’s a lot and I don’t think she gets enough credit because every other school has multiple coaches, even for teams half our size,” he said.

The boys were recognized on Tuesday at halftime of the boys basketball game and received a nice surprise when the Cowbell Mafia greeted them after eating dinner at JT’s Brew & Grill. The boys said they have never been to state as an athlete or as spectators and although they don’t know what to expect, they know what to expect out of themselves.

“It is going to be a really different atmosphere,” Lucas said. “Xander and I both swam at the pool there before and a lot of my good friends swam there when they went to state and from what they have said, the atmosphere is really electric. It is a hard atmosphere to swim in because everyone wants to be there and everyone wants to swim fast.

“At the same time, the pressure is off because at districts, everyone is nervous because you have to qualify, where at state, you are already there. So a lot of the pressure is lifted, which allows you to just go out there and swim as fast as you can.”

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