PLYMOUTH TWP. >> The moments came less than a half hour apart on the deck at Franklin & Marshall’s Kunkel Aquatic Center, each significant in its way.
First, Alex Boratto penned an ending to his Haverford School career that defied belief, chasing down three 400 freestyle relay teams to help the Fords win the culminating race of the Eastern Interscholastic Swimming Championships and the team competition, the program’s first Easterns triumph.
When it came time to hand out individual hardware for most outstanding swimmer at that meet, the juxtaposition between two former Penn Charter Aquatic Club teammates was stark. On the boys side was Penn Charter’s Reece Whitley, a 6-foot-8 behemoth who had torched two national high school records in 36 hours and capped one of the most illustrious high school careers in history. Next to him — at a much lower altitude — stood Mia Abruzzo, the Notre Dame freshman who swam with more force than her diminutive exterior signaled.
The two accolades also stood at the ends of the temporal spectrum. For Boratto, it was a farewell to six seasons competing at the high school level, to four years of Inter-Ac Championships and three years of Easterns crowns before heading to Stanford. Abruzzo’s is an arrival, an introduction of the highly touted rookie to the high school scene.
For those accomplishments, Boratto and Abruzzo are the 2017-18 Daily Times Swimmers of the Year.
Joining them on the first teams are Boratto’s fellow Fords John Nelligan, Antonio Octaviano and Brian Brennan; Episcopal Academy’s Ivan Puskovitch, Cole Whitsett, Hadley DeBruyn, Alex Sumner and Wren Sablich; Radnor’s Patrick Cullen; Maddie Aguirre of Agnes Irwin; Claire Walsh of Penncrest and Garnet Valley’s Noelle DiClemente.
Boratto, the three-time boys swimmer of the year, earns his fourth All-Delco nod. He’s the fifth athlete named swimmer of the year three times. Sumner, last year’s girls swimmer of the year, and Puskovitch are three-time All-Delcos. Brennan, Nelligan, DeBruyn, Sablich and Walsh are on the team a second time each.
Abruzzo is the only freshman of the group. The Class of 2019 leads a balanced age distribution with five of 14 slots, complemented by four seniors and four sophomores. The All-Delco team is selected in consultation with area coaches.
Abruzzo’s ascent at Notre Dame has elements of the preordained and the surprising. Swimming runs in the family: Mia is the second of four children, all swimmers. Older brother Andrew is a three-time world junior champion and a senior at Germantown Academy who signed with national powerhouse Georgia.
Mia likewise trains with former GA coach Dick Shoulberg, who retired in 2015 from the school and aquatic club and started a new program at Plymouth Whitemarsh Aquatic Club. After a stint with Penn Charter Aquatics, Abruzzo joined Shoulberg and former GA coach Caroline Boland at PWAC.
Those complications made high school selection anything but straightforward. It also brought Notre Dame into the picture. It was an unconventional choice, a program with a small roster dependent on the density of club swimmers in the area who could augment their training elsewhere. But Abruzzo selected Notre Dame for more than just sporting reasons, a balance between aquatic and non-aquatic considerations that Notre Dame coach Brigit Barry accentuated when meeting her parents.
“I wanted to make sure that I got a good high school experience,” Abruzzo said. “… I wanted to go to the place that was best for me even without thinking about swimming, and that was Notre Dame.”
“I think she’s bought into it,” said Barry, the 2001 Daily Times Girls Swimmer of the Year. “I think one of the fun things about Notre Dame swimming, especially for a club swimmer that’s putting in hours and hours and hours of time outside of high school, is its high school swimming. … I think she did appreciate the fact that at the end of the day, we’re there to compete but there’s not a ton of pressure.”
Abruzzo isn’t averse to hard work (as no one seeking Shoulberg’s yards-heavy regiment should be). Barry was struck by Abruzzo’s self-motivation from Day 1. Notre Dame, though, provides a certain balance. The team this year had 12 members. Instead of rote repetition in the same few events, Abruzzo branched out and swam all seven individual events in meets. And she enjoyed the small-team counterpoint to massive and individual-driven USA Swim meets.
“It’s not as big of a team, but you still have your club swimmers and your regular swimmers,” Abruzzo said. “I like being on a smaller team because everyone gets to know each other better and everyone’s so much nicer and more connected.”
Boratto and the Fords found themselves at the opposite end of the team-building spectrum. For the past half-decade, coach Sean Hansen had built the team brick-by-brick in their Easterns finishes. This season brought a legitimate chance to win it all in what projected as a tight team race.
Boratto did his part early with a double dip of individual victories. He won the 100 butterfly by a narrow margin in 49.20 seconds. He coasted to win the 100 backstroke by nearly two seconds in 48.01, an Easterns meet record and All-American time. (In January, Boratto set a U.S. Independent High Schools Short-Course Meters record in that event at 54.54.) Though he didn’t collect either accolade, the times were of the caliber of both a county record (he has the unfortunate overlap in specialty with Olympian and fellow three-time Daily Times Swimmer of the Year Shane Ryan) and a Most Outstanding Swimmer at Easterns (were it not for Whitley).
As the final relay beckoned, the Fords held a 3.5-point lead on Phillips Andover. All they needed was to better Andover’s finish in the 400 free to ensure a team victory. Winning the race would give them an insurmountable cushion.
The biggest prize on the line, with the best swimmer Haverford School has ever produced in the water, with a deficit to recoup no less.
“You can’t script that any better,” Hansen said. “That was incredible.”
Boratto authored a fitting coda, splitting a mind-numbingly fast 43.99 anchor leg to claw the Fords from fourth to first (past Andover in the process). They added a Delco record time of 3:02.21, one of three relay marks rewritten by the Fords.
The last swim was a microcosm of what Boratto had brought to the program, a concentrated 44-second epitome of his influence.
“I think he does bring our program to the next level, but what he does for our team isn’t about the times,” Hansen said. “It’s his work ethic, the way he competes in practice and in meets, and he naturally leads by example. The accolades, the times and the records are all just a byproduct of his hard work. …
“He just works so hard and sacrifices a lot for his high school team, which a lot of club swimmers don’t always do. That attitude was contagious to the guys. For him to compete like that in last leg of high school meet, is a fitting way for him to end it.”
Abruzzo takes the same tack in her approach, and it likewise paid dividends. She won the Easterns 200 individual medley by a staggering margin in 2:00.49. It was Abruzzo’s best time by three seconds and usurped Sumner’s county record, with EA’s Cal-bound senior eschewing that event.
Abruzzo added a second victory in the 500 free with a time of 4:51.90, triumphing by more than six seconds.
Boratto and Abruzzo present mirror images in their career placements. And the younger of the duo talks like someone who wants to keep climbing to those kinds of heights later in her career.
“It was just a really good experience because everyone was so excited and the adrenaline was rushing through,” Abruzzo said. “… It just makes me want to train harder and go faster in the water.”
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