Sean Hansen doesn’t often have to worry about getting his Haverford School swimmers’ heads in the game at a meet like the Eastern Interscholastic Swimming and Diving Championships. If anything, he may need to nudge them away from event-by-event score tabulations.
So when the culminating 400 freestyle relay arrived Saturday night at Franklin & Marshall with the Fords holding a 3.5-point edge in the team standings, much of the exposition of the situation went unsaid. And nowhere was the messaging more succinct that with captain Alex Boratto.
Boratto, a two-time Daily Times Boys Swimmer of the Year and bound for Stanford next fall, had won the 100 backstroke and 100 butterfly. He knew that the Fords had been third in morning prelims, sans 100 free champ Brian Brennan. He knew that JR Leitz, 19th in the 100 free, would give the Fords a slight edge over Jack Deppen (eighth in the 100 back).
All Hansen had to impart was the “I have to say this as a coach” reminder to leave it all out there.
“As long as you keep it close, you know Alex is going to go in and be a gamer,” Hansen told Leitz, before pep-talking his anchor. “I told Alex, ‘these are the last four laps you’re ever going to swim at Haverford; make it fast.’ And the rest is the rest.”
Boratto delivered a swim for the ages. His split of 43.99 seconds was the fastest in the race. He zoomed from fourth at the pickup from Leitz to first at the final wall, a time of 3:02.21 that marks a Delco record.
That relay also represented the final meter in a decade-long ascent of the Easterns mountain, which Haverford School won for the first time in program history. It was just seven years ago that the Fords, led by Hansen, celebrated their first top-six finish. Since, they’ve been a fixture in the medal places, topping out in second place two years ago, but the final step eluded them.
No more, thanks to a blend of talent that perfectly melds Hansen’s ethos: A prestigious program that attracts top talents, augmented by a blue-collar work ethic maximizing that skill.
So you have Boratto, besting his meet record in the 100 back, who would fit in the lineup at any of the blue-blooded institutions represented. And you have the swimmer at the other end of the spectrum who Hansen credits with providing the dare-to-believe moment of the meet: Bobby Blewett.
Yes that Bobby Blewett, who scored in 23rd place in the 50 free Friday, who went from the 73rd seed in the 100 free to 37th Saturday by dropping six seconds, who started swimming as a rehab exercise for a knee injury during lacrosse season.
“He was like, ‘how do I swim this?,’” Hansen said of the exchange before the 100 free. “And I was like,
‘just go after it.’ ‘Well, what if I die?’ And I told him, ‘Who cares? Just go out fast and swim it.’ And he went 50.4, and everybody was sitting around on deck after warming up going, holy crap. He does that, and then he comes back to the guys and is like, come on, let’s go.
“From there, that’s where guys got fired up.”
Then there’s Brennan, who last year shined as a distance star but has been forced by injury to reinvent as a sophomore sprinter. The limits on his energy expenditure kept him off the preliminary 400 free squad, but he responded by winning a frenetic 100 free in 44.96. He bested a deep sprint field that included Pennington School phenom David Curtiss, who threw down a 19.97 Friday to win the 50.
Hansen shook off a modicum of disappointment Friday, where the Fords posted best times but didn’t jump up as much as they’d hoped against relative to the field. But for whatever slight dismay lingered from being third after Day 1, Hansen always focuses on process rather than outcome, and seeing legions of best times provided motivation to sojourn on.
The rest of Saturday night was down to the Fords following Hansen’s season-long motto, “Do you job.” Antonio Octaviano dutifully played first runner-up to Reece Whitley’s high school swansong, yet another national record in the 100 breaststroke. John Nelligan A-finaled in the 100 free with Brennan, while TJ Brooks found his way into the B final and Leitz the C.
Those successes keyed a quintessential victory in the Fords’ ascent. The echoes of the past ranged from the blatant – like All-Delcos Andrew Helber and Connor O’Prey, who graduated from college careers to become Hansen’s assistants – to the subtle, like a team that included just 11 scorers amassing 550.5 points. At a distance, the entire endeavor seems to have perfectly fit Hansen’s blueprint.
“I don’t want to say it’s validating in terms of what we do because every year when we’re putting up best times, that does it,” Hansen said. “… It’s eerily similar to the Eagles in that everything fell into place. It’s awesome for the school and it’s awesome for the program in general. It’s been a long time coming, and it’s really been focused on doing it the right way, going in with what we have and focusing on swimming fast.
“The focus isn’t on winning; it’s on going in and doing best times. When you do your best and your best is the best, it’s pretty special.”
When it came to selecting Most Outstanding Swimmer awards, half of the drama was easily dispelled. Whitley’s national records in the 200 IM and 100 breast in his unprecedented legacy at the meet made him an easy choice, though Boratto’s candidacy would’ve ordinarily been worthy.
But on the girls side, the accolade went to a new face. Notre Dame freshman Mia Abruzzo claimed the title after winning the 200 IM and 500 free. She managed the former in a Delco record 2:00.49, usurping the mark set last year by Alex Sumner of Episcopal Academy. Abruzzo also took the MOS honor from Sumner, who won the 100 back and swam three relays.
Abruzzo’s county record is one of five felled at Easterns, three via Haverford School relays. The other was by Ivan Puskovitch, the EA junior who twice undercut Matt Haigh’s county mark in the 500 free. Puskovitch won the final in 4:27.35.
“He is one of the hardest workers in the pool, he’s there morning and night training, getting himself prepared and ready for that particular race,” EA coach Brian Kline said. “He got the job done. He wanted to go a little faster than what he swam in the meet, but he got the job done. He’s always wanted to win that event, always wanted to be at the top of the podium.”
Per Kline’s research, Puskovitch is the first EA boy ever to win an individual swimming event at Easterns.
The EA girls rallied to finish second overall, a year after winning their first team crown. The burst was fueled by four divers in the top 16, led by a 1-2 finish by Wren Sablich and Maia Golub.
Also in the Most Outstanding Swimmer conversation was Emma Atkinson, a Brookhaven native who swims for Germantown Academy. Atkinson won the 200 free in 1:48.51 (she was .07 quicker in prelims) and the 100 free in 50.26. Both are All-American cuts.
She led off the 200 free relay, won by GA, in a split of 23.64 that would’ve won the 50 free championship, and anchored the winning 400 free relay in a race-best split of 50.01.
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