Saturday evening was the joyful conclusion to a magical season for the Saint Ignatius swimming and diving program.
No, it did not result in a state championship or runner-up trophy. But the fifth-place finish brought smiles to plenty of faces wearing the blue and gold at the CT Branin Natatorium at Canton McKinley High School on Saturday evening.
The Aqua Cats celebrated one of the best seasons in program history in 2019-20. The Wildcats won every single dual meet for the first time in the team's history. The Clevelanders won the District Championship for the first time since 2012 and the ninth time overall. And the men of Mike Lehto finished in the top five at the State Meet with some great finishes and several school records set.
"Not knowing exactly how we would perform this weekend, we put a lot of effort into winning the District, which was our team goal. We knew that if we did well at Districts, we'd do well at the State Meet," Lehto said. "But it's such a mentally tough challenge to get yourself up two weekends in a row. It's a whole new level here. But I'm proud of these guys."
Despite the cheerful conclusion, Saturday began on a difficult note for the Wildcats.
Will Claus represented Saint Ignatius in the 1-meter diving. Claus started the day off great with a wonderful dive that scored him 35.70 points. It looked like the start of a memorable day for Claus, perhaps ending with a medal and a picture on the podium. But then misfortune struck Claus. A freak accident on his second dive led to a failed attempt. And on top of the lost points, Claus suffered a cut foot on the dive. The junior tried to continue diving, but could not. Claus had to withdraw in an unfortunate sequence of events. But Claus will be back next year, better than ever.
The Wildcats’ 200 medley relay kicked off the swimming finals portion in the evening. Tyler Hong, Zach Toothman, Brian Johnson, and John Soeder hit the pool for Saint Ignatius. Hong got the Wildcats going with a good start in the 50 back in 22.25, Toothman kept it rolling in the breast with a 26.87, Johnson rolled to a 21.86 in the fly, and Soeder finished it off with a great mark of 20.47 in the free. The quartet combined for a time of 1:31.45, clocking in at second place.
From prelims to finals, the Wildcats dropped 1.60 seconds, the best of any team in the event. The great time allowed the Wildcats to sneak past Mason, who beat Saint Ignatius in the prelims. And in the process, the Wildcats' relay squad set a new school record, breaking the previous mark of 1:31.97 set by Simcox, Hren, Christian, and Pophal during the 2012-13 campaign.
"From this year's State Meet, I'll most remember the 200 medley," said Hong. "We came in as underdogs, and we came out in second place. We're really happy with that, and we got a team record."
The top highlight of the day might have been the 200 individual medley. Tyler Hong entered as the No. 2 swimmer, after Cincinnati Sycamore's Ansel Froass. But Saturday belonged to Hong. After taking fourth in his freshman and sophomore seasons, Hong won the event on Saturday.
The junior notched an incredible time of 1:47.26, shaving 1.35 seconds off his time! That's just amazing, as no other swimmer in the event did that. Hong was only one of two swimmers from Northeast Ohio to be crowned as a State Champion. And with the season complete, his time of 1:47.26 will go on the record board until next season, when he'll surely break it again.
"I feel great," Hong said. "I'm happy the boys are here and supported us. I'm so happy that they came to support us."
Next up was the Wildcats’ speedster, John Soeder, who took his spot in the B finals of the 50 free. Competing against some of the fastest men in the state, the senior more than held his own. Soeder sped to a time of 21.12 for third place in his heat and 11th overall.
Soeder returned to the pool for the 100 free in the B finals. The Mentor native clocked in at 47.06, claiming 15th place in the event for a couple more points for the Wildcats.
"I want thank everyone for their support," Soeder said afterward. "We had a lot of support at school this week, I really appreciate it. From Saint Ignatius swimming, I've learned the power of brotherhood. When guys come together and have a common goal, amazing things can happen."
Next on the docket for the Wildcats was the 200 free relay. Micah Murtha, Kian Carmichael, Will Van de Walle, and Soeder repped Saint Ignatius in the in the A finals. Against amazing, state-record breaking competition, the Wildcats snatched sixth. All of the splits were solid – Murtha flying at 21.54, Carmichael flowing to 21.31, Van de Walle speeding to 21.40, and Soeder rolling to 20.45. The quartet has plenty to be proud of.
After a nice break, Hong got back to the spotlight in the A finals of the 100 backstroke. The star did not disappoint. Hong dropped 0.95 seconds to touch the wall at 47.89, mere milliseconds behind two seniors. The bronze medal still felt very good at the end, and the result delivered plenty of points to the Wildcats.
The evening concluded with the A finals of the 400 free relay with Hong, Joe Richmond, Murtha, and Carmichael. The quartet showcased plenty of fortitude in powering through the final event. Hong kicked things off with a 44.90 split, Richmond kept the momentum going at 46.94, Murtha penciled in 46.44, and Carmichael capped it off at 47.10. Add it all up, and you get a very nice time of 3:05.38. The Wildcats chopped off over a second from the prelim time.
The great ending result cemented the Wildcats in fifth place with a team score of 132.
For Lehto, this senior class has been so important. They will be missed.
"The seniors have gotten the younger guys to trust the process and believe. They're the foundation here. This is our first big class, and you see ever since, we've had a steady amount of kids coming in. Hopefully, these younger guys have learned from it and will trust the process. With the junior class, we have some talented kids coming back for next year. We'll lose some depth, but we'll still be a team to be reckoned with in our District and at States."
Soeder certainly will miss his time as a Wildcat.
"It's been a wild ride. I'm so happy that it happened," he said. "Being with the guys these past four years has been great. This is an amazing class, these guys are my brothers. We've been through a lot together. To come out and end like this is really special."