The margin couldn’t have been any tighter.
Not in the 400-yard freestyle, where Maize pulled out a victory by a mere .05 seconds over a Heights foursome that hadn’t been beaten all year. And certainly not in the final team standings for the Class 5-1A swimming title where that slimmest of victories in the final event of the meet gave Maize its first state crown, by a mere 1/2 point over Heights.
Down by 5.5 points heading into the final race, Maize pulled the improbable upset and pulled out the victory, sending its cheering section into a delirium and the Falcons and their fans into shock.
“We’ve been working for this all year and we knew we had a chance,” Maize senior Preston Barley said. “I went through so many emotions, from ‘We’re going to get it!’ to ‘Oh, they just locked it up, it’s over’ to winning it like that. I couldn’t even watch the end of the race, I just watched the board. It’s just so unbelievable right now.”
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Maize went in the 400 freestyle relay knowing it had to not only beat Heights, but win the race to make up the differential. A victory in the event assure the Eagles no worse than a six-point swing.
Easier said that done, however, as the Falcon foursome of Dawson Gantenbein, Aidan Gantenbein, Ethan Conrady and Dylan Jensen hadn’t lost as a team and had posted the fastest qualifying time by more than three seconds.
Barley, who earlier in the day secured his first individual state title with a win in the 200 freestyle, got the Eagles off to a flying start, giving Maize a half-second lead. It was back and forth from there as Aidan Gantenbein staked Heights to a lead before Maize’s Brett Young took it back by the end of the third leg. Jensen pushed past Maize anchor Harrison Shively on the first 50 of the final leg, but Shively powered home and just out-touched Jensen for the win in 3 minutes, 16.07.
“I just couldn’t let my teammates down,” Shively said. “They got me that close, I couldn’t lose it. It was more like, ‘We had to do it, we had to win.’ That’s an incredible way to win a state title.”
Heights opened the day with one-second win over Maize in the 200 medley relay as both Gantenbeins, Creighton Sanders and Joel Alderson won in 1:38.41. The Falcons won one other race, the 200 freestyle relay team of Conrady, Alderson, Jensen and Noah Childs also topping Maize by a half-second in 1:29.95.
Heights improved its final placing from its seeding times in a number events and gradually moved into the team lead, led by a pair of runner-up finishes from Dawson Gantenbein in the 100 butterfly and 100 backstroke and a runner-up from Sanders in the 100 breaststroke after he had qualified sixth.
“We didn’t swim great (Friday), but we swam much better today,” Heights coach Dale Heckman said. “I tell you what, Creighton Sanders and Levi Johnson in the breaststroke, we don’t even have a shot at it if they don’t perform like they did. Ethan Conrady won the consos in the 200 free, that was big for us.
“We lost two meets this year by a total of two points, city by a point and a half and state by a half. If you’d told me that at the first of the year, I’d said that would be a pretty good year, but it stings right now.”
Barley had felt the sting of coming up short in his bid for a state title the past two years despite qualifying first in the 200 freestyle. This year he made sure to finish what he started, jumping out to a big lead and cruising to the win in 1:46.07.
“I took it out good and it wasn’t the time I wanted to go, but it was enough,” Barley said.
Barley came up short in his quest for double-individual gold, taking second in the 100 freestyle after being the top qualifier. El Dorado’s Keagan Wilson stormed past him for the title in 47.72, but any disappointment from the defeat was washed away in the post-title victory splash in the pool.
Maize’s Shively, Brett Young and Christian Taylor each posted a pair of top-eight finishes with Taylor taking third in the 100 breaststroke and sixth in the 200 individual medley, Young placing fourth in the 200 IM and fifth in the 100 breast and Shively taking sixth in the 100 back and eighth in the 200 IM. Ryan Kuhl (eighth, 100 back) and Jacob Ruder (eighth, 200 freestyle) also earned medals and the Eagles did enough in the consolation finals to secure the championship.
“Winning a state championship’s never routine,” Maize coach Tedd Gibson said. “It was a lot of hard work and I’m blessed with some very good kids and some great swimmers. You put that all together and get a little bit of luck and here we are.”
Regal Rockets — Growing up, Gavin Smith wasn’t sure if he’d ever swim for Rose Hill. Mostly, it was because Rose Hill didn’t have a swimming program.
“I was kind of looking around at other high schools that had swimming,” Smith said. “Then they came out with one when I was in eighth grade, so I stayed and the rest is history.”
Smith became the Rockets’ first state champion two years ago as a sophomore and finished his career Saturday as a five-time state champion. The reigning champion in both the 50 freestyle and 100 butterfly entering the meet, Smith successfully defended both on his way to earning swimmer of the meet honors.
“It means a lot to be able to win five times, it’s really special to bring that back to our school,” Smith said. “There was a little bit of pressure, but this is my senior year and it’s all about how you’re going to be remembered.”
After easily cruising to the top qualifying times on Friday, Smith actually had his hands full on Saturday. In the 100 fly, he led Heights’ Dawson Gantenbein by a full second after 50 yards, but had to fight off the Falcon late, winning by .35 seconds in 51.88.
The 50 free was even tighter, though Smith had no idea how close it was. Streaking toward the title in the middle of the pool, Smith was unaware El Dorado’s Keagan Wilson was making a hard charge in lane eight.
“I couldn’t see him; I had no idea,” Smith said. “I was a little surprised, but we’ve raced each other most of high school so I knew he’d be there.”
Smith out-touched him to win in 21.47 seconds, .08 ahead of Wilson.
While Smith was racking up his fourth and fifth gold medals, teammate Noah Baden was keeping pace. The junior also had two titles to defend from a year ago and did so with relative ease, taking his second straight crown in the 500 freestyle and third straight in the 100 breaststroke to match Smith’s total of five golds.
Baden made his move in the 500 at the 300-yard mark, turning a duel with Seaman’s Zeke Metz into a runaway win, taking the title by more than four seconds in 4:46.33. In the 100 breaststroke, Baden trailed Heights’ Creighton Sanders by almost a second after 50 yards, but turned it on late and won by a second and a half in 58.60.
“It’s definitely a lot more pressure,” Baden said. “I knew there’d be a lot of big faces this year in both of those events. ... I’m just glad I’m able to do good things for this team.”
Rose Hill finished third as a team with Smith, Baden Austin Farber and David Steinhilpert taking fourth in the 200 medley (1:41.80) and 200 freestyle relays (1:32.47) and Farber adding a fifth in the 100 freestyle (49.35).
Patton wins — After Friday’s prelims, Trinity Academy freshman Ben Patton called his nervous energy a “good thing,” serving as fuel for his adrenaline.
His performance might have settled his nerves, but the energy rose to an even greater level in Saturday’s finals. Figuring he’d have a big-time challenge with St. James Academy’s Anderson Maginn for the 200-yard individual medley title, Patton instead turned the race into a bit of a coming-out party, laying waste to Maginn and the field.
Patton turned a slight lead halfway through the race into a commanding lead after the breaststroke leg and flew to a winning time of 1:54.24. Maginn was second in 1:57.53.
“I just knew I had to get out fast and the rest of the race would just fall into place,” Patton said. “I was surprised how fast I went and that I won by so much.”
Patton set his sights on taking down the record in the 100 backstroke, but fell just short. Still, he was hardly disappointed with his winning time of 50.98, which beat runner-up Dawson Gantenbein of Heights by nearly two seconds, but fell short of the record of 50.28.
Wilson’s whirlwind week — On Monday, El Dorado’s Keagan Wilson wasn’t even sure he would get a chance to swim at state. Back pain sent the Wildcat junior to the emergency room and though he was cleared to return with a spasm, he spent the rest of the week ill.
“We thought it might be a kidney stone and I wouldn’t be able to swim,” Wilson said.
Wilson not only swam, but was every bit his usual self. After a near-miss for the 50 freestyle title, Wilson came back and knocked off Maize’s Preston Barley for the 100 freestyle title. Wilson took it out fast and held off Barley, winning in 47.72 with Barley second in 48.33.
“It was a good race and we’ve raced like three times before that and he always beat me,” Wilson said. “I figured out how he likes to swim and I was able to get a strategy and overcome him.”
Wilson nearly pulled the upset of the meet in the 50 freestyle. Qualifying eighth, Wilson made a hard charge from the outside lane and came within .08 seconds of knocking off defending champion and swimmer of the meet Gavin Smith of Rose Hill, finishing in 21.55 to Smith’s 21.47.
“I thought he was going to completely wreck me,” Wilson said. “When I touched the wall, I was right there. It was crazy.”
East seventh – Led by a third-place finish from Jack Quah in the 100 breaststroke, East secured a seventh-place finish in the 6A meet. Quah took more than a second off his qualifying time with a finals time of 59.00, but couldn’t quite keep up with Blue Valley West’s Jordan Cowen, who won in 57.02, and Washburn Rural’s Tarrin Fisher, who was second in 58.84.
Quah also helped East’s 200 medley relay to a fifth-place finish, teaming with Sam Hutchinson, Matthew Randle and Hugh McPherson. McPherson added a fifth in the 200 individual medley (2:01.86), while Hutchinson and Randle finished 7-8 in the 10 back and the 400 freestyle relay took eighth.