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Delco Invitational breaks new ground

RADNOR >> It’s been 34 years since Tom Robinson grabbed the reins of the Radnor swimming program. But at his heart, Robinson remains imbued with the spirit of a track coach. And on the pool deck, one way that has manifested is in wondering why, unlike the two terrestrial endurance sports he’s coached, swimming lacked a single meet uniting Delaware County’s best athletes.

He rectified that, after many years of pondering, with this weekend’s first Delco Invitational at Radnor, bringing together nine schools for what Robinson hopes is the first of many such events.

“The idea was to have a meet like cross country and track has with a Delaware County championship,” Robinson said. “It’s something I’ve wanted to have for a long time. So yeah, it fills a void in that respect.”

Robinson’s considerations were both practical and jocular. The pragmatic side introduces swimmers to a trials-and-finals format akin to the PIAA Championships, with preliminary heats on Saturday and finals on Sunday. The atmosphere, though, injected the levity lacking in stodgy meets like Centrals and Districts where so much is on the line. Each event included a procession for the A finalists with introductory music (chosen by the top qualifier from Saturday) as well as prizes for event winners, most emblazoned with “Delco” and provided via a partnership with apparel company Blue Rooted.

The sight of, for instance, top qualifier in the 200-yard freestyle Abby Krissinger of Haverford walking to the blocks in gold parachute pants while MC Hammer’s “U Can’t Touch This” played, would raise more than a few eyebrows at a staid setting like the District 1 Championships.

Robinson was underwhelmed by the inaugural turnout. While invitations were offered to more than 20 programs, only five of the Central League’s nine-strong Delco contingent (Haverford, Ridley, Radnor, Upper Darby and Marple Newtown) joined Valley Forge Military Academy, Delco Christian and Cardinal O’Hara in sending representatives (Strath Haven and Springfield submitted divers only, contested midweek).

When you weigh the benefits and challenges of launching such a meet, it’s understandable why Robinson’s brainchild took so long to germinate. A day of racing (much less two) is one fewer day of workouts, particularly when yardage is being ramped up for the taper to February’s championship season. Weekends are rife with practices not just for high school teams but club squads, and avoiding calendar conflicts was a particular challenge.

But chances to line up for a trials-and-finals format, any high school coach will admit, are vanishingly rare. Save for the Catholic League’s de facto PCL/District 12 weekend double, most high school swimmers don’t get a chance to learn the rhythms of two consecutive swims until the meet where it matters most, states. Add in the light atmosphere to break the doldrums of a heavy training month like January — with its dark before morning practice/dark after evening practice tedium — and the chance to earn cross-league bragging rights, and you get a welcomed change of pace for many.

“I’ve been preaching to the kids all year that they have to learn how to swim fast when tired,” Ridley coach Kevin Pierce said. “We’re beat up; we’ve been training pretty hard. So for them to come in, we got a bunch of Centrals cuts, we got a couple of districts cuts, it sets up well for the next couple of weeks with taper coming in. I want them to know they can swim fast times, and this weekend proved they can do that.”

“It’s a really great opportunity that we don’t get a lot,” said Haverford sophomore Elsley Hazell, who won the 100 butterfly and 100 breaststroke to earn Most Outstanding Girls Swimmer honors. “I quite like it because the prelims, you get to swim and see how you do, and finals, you know how you went and you know what you want to go. So it’s easier to get that goal in your mindset.”

The swimming itself was plenty fast, a precursor to Centrals in the same pool in three weeks. Haverford’s Colin Pettit won the 200 and 500 free, while Patrick Cullen of Radnor did the sprint double and took part in both winning Radnor free relays to earn Most Outstanding Boys Swimmer recognition.

The lead in the boys competition yo-yoed between Ridley and Radnor, with the Raiders seizing it after breaststroke and sealing the title (and a new trophy) with the 400 free relay win.

Haverford’s girls romped to the title with 425 points to Ridley’s 238. Grace Myers edged Krissinger in the 200 free, though Krissinger rebounded in the 100 free. Brooke Jamieson won the 200 individual medley, and Emma Wojnovich led a 1-2-3 finish in the 100 backstroke for the Fords, who swept the relays.

Radnor’s boys prevailed thanks to James El-Diery’s triumph in the IM and Nick Mlodzienski’s victory in the 100 fly. Alex Boeckx of Ridley topped the field in the 100 backstroke, while David Abrahams and Matt Bochanski of Haverford went 1-2 in the 100 breast.

Other girls winners included Marisela Rechner of Ridley in the 50 free and Grace Wakiyama of Radnor in the 500.

Most teams exited with a clearer understanding of where they stand as the postseason dawns. Some coaches allowed swimmers to don fast suits Sunday to chase Central League or District 1 qualifying times, which will sculpt the plans for when and how to rest in the coming weeks. Some swimmers flexed their muscles in their wheelhouse events, others branched out.

Those kinds of options are what Robinson envisions this meet providing in the long term.

“We didn’t really know what to expect coming in, but it gives us a chance to suit up,” Pierce said. “The finals, with the music playing and everything, a lot of our kids have not been to meets that do that type of stuff, so they’re energy level has gone up, which makes them swim faster, so I was happy with that.”

“As a team, we come here to get closer and get better and support each other,” Hazell said. “It was a lot of fun today.”

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