By Nicholas Dalaviras '20 and Jack Figge '22, News Editor, reporter
'This is a state championship team’ was the motivational slogan for the St. Louis U. High Swim and Dive team from the beginning of the 2019 season as they worked to claim back-to-back Class 2 State Championships. On Saturday afternoon at the St. Peter’s Rec Plex, the team made the slogan a reality as the Jr. Bills blew their competition away, scoring the most points in a State Championship since Rockhurst in 2009.
When state preliminary competition began on Friday night, the Jr. Bills entered as the favorites after two years of going into the state meet as competitive underdogs. The shift in seeding placement left the SLUH squad in a different mental spot than they had been in past years, but they were determined to not allow their goal to slip through their fingers.
“We’ve never been in this position before of trying to go back-to-back, so I wanted everyone to be aware that people are looking at us,” said head coach Lindsey Ehret.
Right out of the gate, the 200 medley relay team of sophomore Cooper Scharff, senior Evan Lu, sophomore Jonas Hostetler, and senior Andrew Zimmerman gave hope to a dominant SLUH performance as they coasted past their best time of the season by over a second and placed going into finals with a 1:37.78.
Senior Sean Santoni was then ready to put everything into his 200 freestyle. Santoni, the only SLUH swimmer in the event, was seeded ninth before prelims, one spot out of the A final, which, if he qualified into, would ensure his spot in the top 8 in finals so long as he was not disqualified. After a gutsy first 100 where he nearly went his fastest flat start 100 free time to a flip, Santoni touched in 1:45.59. The time earned him eighth by 0.05 seconds and was a time drop of nearly two seconds.
“I knew what I had to do. I had a plan. I executed that plan, and it was a great way to end my career,” said Santoni.
In the 200 IM, Scharff comfortably swam to a second seeded time of 1:52.71, while sophomore Ned Mehmeti had a breakout swim in the final circle-seeded heat of the IM preliminaries, smashing his previous best by two and a half seconds (2:00.65) and placing 10th. Lu also saw a second and a half drop (2:04.29) which landed him just outside of finals in 19th. Freshman Gavin Baldes finished 25th (2:07.84).
Junior Eli Butters also had his sights set high going into state prelims. A sophomore breakout who dropped significant time in both his sophomore and junior seasons to become one of the top sprinters in the state, Butters had eyes set on not only the school record, but a State Championship. In the 50 free prelims, Butters smashed one of the oldest school records, touching as the top seed for finals with a blistering 20.95. The time made Butters the first SLUH swimmer ever to dip under 21 seconds from a flat start in high school competition and broke Will Derdeyn’s previous record of 21.17 set in 2008.
“The 50 was really good,” said Butters. “I just wanted to execute it the same as I always do: same breaths, same stroke and see if I could get a little bit better.”
Zimmerman also had a big swim, dipping under 22 for the first time and taking fifth (21.88), and freshman Jason Cabra took a 0.4 second drop in the first heat to a three-way tie for 14th (22.65), meaning that Cabra and the two others he tied with secured the last spots in finals.
After a quick intermission, the 100 fly group did not let up. Seniors Josh Brown and Carson Massie had time drops of around a second each to seed tenth (53.80) and eleventh (53.86) respectively. Hostetler also saw a near second drop in his swim to splash to seventh (52.81). Baldes finished 28th (56.56).
Butters then took down another SLUH record, in the 100 free, though this one was just one year old. Surging to the win in the first of three circle-seeded prelim heats, Butters posted a 46.07. The blistering time shaved nearly two seconds off Butters’s personal best and sent him freestyling past Joe Feder’s, ‘19 2018 school record of 46.45. Zimmerman splashed and dashed to another time drop that snuck him into the A final in seventh (48.43) while Cabra dropped a half second to claim a more commanding tenth place in his second swim on the day (49.63). Hostetler, who swam the 100 free just minutes after securing an A final spot in the 100 fly, finished 21st (50.58).
Mehmeti was the Jr. Bill that stormed the 500 free prelims. The sophomore charged to keep up with a close pack of three other swimmers in the third heat of prelims; at the wall, he touched second in the pack and third in the heat, beating out another swimmer by 0.42 seconds in the nearly five minute race. Mehmeti’s swim was good enough to sneak him into the A final in eighth place and was a time drop of nearly nine seconds (4:47.40).
“Ned had an incredible swim,” said Ehret. “His prelims swim was on fire. I was just like ‘when is he gonna die?’ but he never did. It was awesome.”
Santoni took 12th in the 500 with a six second drop (4:50.95) that qualified him for finals, and senior Patrick Moehn took 25th (5:09.59).
The 200 freestyle relay team of Butters, Zimmerman, Brown, and Scharff arguably had the biggest agenda of the day as they attempted to break what was the second oldest standing overall state record at the time of the swim. With Butters as leadoff (21.05), Zimmerman as the second leg (21.25), Brown as the third (22.25), and Scharff as the anchor leg with the fastest split in the 32-team field by over a second (20.09), the group shattered the former school record that they set at the CoMo Invitational (1:25.68) by over a second and the former Class 2 State record (1:25.53, Lee’s Summit North, 2018) by just under a second with a 1:24.64, but missed the overall State record set by mere 0.02 seconds. The SLUH mark was the second fastest time in state history at the time of the swim.
Right after the relay, Scharff hopped into the water for the 100 backstroke, where he took the top seed time by almost two seconds with a 50.69. Then in the 100 breaststroke, Lu shaved over half a second to leap into 10th place (1:01.89).
The final event of the first day of competition saw the 400 free relay of Hostetler, Santoni, Cabra, and Butters take the top seed in a contentious race with Kirkwood in the final heat. The Jr. Bills touched in 3:14.12, the foursome’s best time of the season by over four seconds and the best time recorded by SLUH all season by over a second after Scharff, Zimmerman, Butters, and Hostetler combined for a 3:15.40 in the first meet of the season.
After an eventful Friday at the Rec Plex with multiple record-breaking swims, the Jr. Bills were ready to dive back into the pool and dominante in finals. The finals day began with the diving competition, where the divers tumbled ahead of the field in a display of dominance.
Through the first 10 of 11 dives, sophomore phenom Sebastian Lawrence held the lead over reigning champ and fellow sophomore from Francis Howell North Logan Schelfaut. Going into the final dive, Lawrence led Schelfaut by four points, but the difficulty level of Schelfaut’s final dive was too much for Lawrence to hold off as the sophomores posted the two highest scoring dives of the meet in the final two dives of the meet. Schelfaut squeaked out the win by 2.20 points over Lawrence in the end, who took second (497.50), but Lawrence was far from disappointed in his spectacular finish.
Senior twins Gabe and Max Manalang also had strong meets, finishing fifth (427.15) and seventh (393.00) respectively. Max Manalang recovered in a big way on the final dive after failing his tenth dive as he posted one of the highest scores of the day and ensured his top eight finish. Both of the twins claimed their best finishes at the state meet, which capped four years where they revitalized a nearly dead 2016 SLUH diving program and led the 2019 diving team to more than double the amount of points of its nearest competitor.
Riding off of the big lead that the divers gave the team, the 200 medley relay team got things rolling, finishing third overall, helping to secure crucial relay points necessary for the team to win.
Senior captain Sean Santoni grabbed more points in the 200 free, finishing 8th overall (1:46.52) after barely being out-touched by 0.31 seconds. The finish would be the first of many tight races that did not go SLUH’s way in State Finals.
Scharff, however, followed Santoni with an outstanding swim in the 200 IM, keeping up with reigning Class 2 champion from Lee’s Summit North Daniel Worth through the first 125 yards before ultimately finishing in second place, but over four seconds ahead of third place, in 1:50.78. Scharff beat his previous school record that he set at CoMo by one and a half seconds.
In somewhat of a letdown in a speedy swim, Butters finished third in the 50 free (21.27), losing to second place by 0.02 seconds. Butters’s preliminary time would have won the event by 0.06 seconds. Zimmerman lunged to fifth (21.78), and Cabra finished 14th (22.78).
In the second half of the finals, SLUH continued to rack up points, ultimately scoring in every event. In the 100 butterfly, Hostetler finished 8th overall (53.17) while Brown touched second in the B-final to take 10th place (53.52) and Massie snatched 11th (54.16).
The exhausted Jr. Bills found themselves giving every last ounce of energy they had after two days of competition with the final six events of the meet. Butters fell just short in the 100 freestyle, finishing behind senior Alex Crawford from Joplin, taking home second place with an impressive 46.41. Zimmerman finished with another best time close behind Butters in 6th place (48.15), and Cabra finished thirteenth overall (50.08) in the junior and senior dominated event.
“Jason Cabra was so impressive,” said Ehret. “Unless you’re Cooper Scharff, freshmen typically don’t score points, so it was great to see him do so well.”
In the 500 yard freestyle, Mehmeti placed eighth (4:54.75) while Santoni stole away with 11th place (4:52.24).
As the 200 freestyle relay came to a close, the crowd was on its feet, shouting and screaming as the Lee Summit’s North and SLUH teams were head to head going into the wall. Both teams were right on pace to break the state record, with Scharff charging back at 50 free runner-up Lance Godard, but Scharff’s comeback was not enough as the Lee’s Summit North team outlasted the SLUH squad (1:24.85) by 0.29 seconds and broke the state record previously set by Rockhurst (1:24.64) in 2009 with a 1:24.56.
Scharff‘s final event of the day, the 100 backstroke, was his chance to make up for the relay that slipped through his team’s fingers just minutes before. Scharff fatigued earlier than usual as Kyle Holzum of Hickman made an unusual charge towards the sophomore in the final 10 yards, but at the touch, Scharff was able to hold the Hickman senior off by a latex-swim-cap-thin margin of 0.01 seconds to claim his first individual state championship with a 51.10.
“The 100 back kind of freaked me out,” said Scharff. “I could have lost that race, and I’ve worked hard for that, but I’m happy that I won and that all the work I’ve put in this year showed in that one (race).”
Riding off of Scharff’s victory in the final event of his SLUH career, Lu finished the 100 breastroke in style. Lu finished 10th overall, matching his time exactly from preliminaries (1:01.89) and out-touching eleventh place by 0.02 seconds.
In the final and one of the most highly contested events of the night, the SLUH 400 free relay team fell just short of the relay team from Rockhurst High School, losing by just four tenths of a second. All four swimmers posted their fastest splits of the season to finish in 3:12.26. Most notably, Butters churned white water to split a 45.37 second anchor leg which nearly closed the two second gap between the Jr. Bills and the Rockhurst squad from the end of the third leg.
“Going into it (400 free relay) I was amped up,” said Santoni. “My heart was beating. Everything about it was fun, the adrenaline was pumping and we succeeded.”
Even with the tough runner-up finish in the final relay, SLUH proved victorious, defeating second place Rockhurst by 67.5 points to become back-to-back MSHSAA Class 2 state champions. The title was SLUH’s fourth in program history (1956, 2003, 2018) and Ehret’s second title and third top two finish in five years as head coach. The victory made SLUH just the 12th program in Missouri swimming and diving history to claim back-to-back championships.
For the 11 senior swimmers and divers on the team, the win was a culmination of four years of grit, fun, and FoPo sicknesses. The seniors made up almost half of the Jr. Bill state team and their contributions on relays and in individual events, as well as their leadership and easy energy, will be missed by coaches and younger teammates alike.
“It feels pretty good knowing that all the hard work of the past four years has paid off and ended in the best way,” said Zimmerman.
The bittersweet finish could not have ended better for the Jr. Bills. SLUH’s 314.5 points was the highest point total in a State Championship meet since Rockhurst scored 400 points in the 2009-2010 season en route to their sixth straight championship in a span of an 11-peat.
As the Jr. Bills hoisted the Missouri-shaped trophy for the second year in a row, they cemented the current SLUH swim and dive dynasty that has slowly been established, and finally, they could proclaim once again that the SLUH Jr. Billikens are in fact a State Champion team.
“We are like twin red fish, dwelling on their successes and failures as they make their final rounds, but in the end, we swam into the sunset, rising to the occasion and taking our victory lap in the rivers of FoPo,” said Brown and Santoni in a joint statement.