The future is now for the Saint Ignatius swimming & diving program.
The Wildcats have an abundant crop of young, talented swimmers and the largest team since the 1980s.
Under the direction of fourth-year head coach Mike Lehto, the Wildcats now have 40 swimmers. The team is composed of 11 freshmen, 13 sophomores, 13 juniors, and 3 seniors. Lehto is thrilled to have such a big squad, despite the challenges it sometimes poses.
"It creates a good work environment because you have to work to get to swim in meets," Lehto said. "This week, we'll swim in some extra heats because St. Francis has a big team, so we're taking everybody. But for most meets, we won't take everybody. This is one of the deeper teams we've had, that will be a big key. We have studs, but the depth will show up this year. That will make a big difference."
The 2018-19 season looks like it might be one to remember for Wildcats fans. And with such a young team, the fun will continue into the next few years.
Lehto has seen his fair share of swimming and diving teams.
Letho has spent two stints with the Wildcats. The Cleveland resident previously coached the Saint Ignatius program during its back-to-back runner-up finishes in 1992 and 1993. Lehto returned as an assistant 10 seasons ago, and assumed the reins four years ago.
Since then, Letho has set about building up the ranks. His hard work has resulted in a deep squad with a ton of talented young swimmers.
"What makes this year's squad different is we're a young squad. It's a dominant freshman-sophomore group, which you don't see in many squads because the seniors and juniors rise up," Lehto said. "We have a very talented freshman and sophomore class. Obviously, we do have one of the most talented swimmers in the state with Tyler Hong. That makes a big difference."
Hong is one of the multitude of exciting young swimmers on the Saint Ignatius roster.
As a freshman in 2017-18, Tyler Hong burst onto the Northeast Ohio high school swimming scene. Hong wowed fans, coaches, and other swimmers with his incredible times.
Hong stole the spotlight at the State Meet, setting a school record of 49.62 in the 100 backstroke for fourth place in the state. Hong also reached the podium in the 200 IM with a fourth-place finish.
The question now is, how high can Hong fly?
"How high is his ceiling? Where can he go? I don't see him slowing down," Lehto said. "His natural progression is that he bumps up a couple notches, at the state level. His ideal events are for college, he will be an exceptional college swimmer. The longer the race, the better he is, so you drop it down to 200 IM, that will be his best chance to win that event. Then, you take a look at national rankings. He was a high school All-American in two events last year. He'll be top 25 in both of those events this year, and that's the goal."
Beyond Hong, fellow sophomore Joe Richmond is another name to eye this season.
Richmond was the lone freshman swimmer in the state last season to clinch a spot in the 500 free at the State Meet. Richmond will be even better this year.
"Now you know he's one of the better distance guys. I watched Joe swim this summer, he's been training and swimming very well," Lehto said. "Joe, in fact, in our alumni meet, picked up where he left off, which is pretty amazing that he's as fast starting off the season as he finished last year. Big things are expected out of him, not just placing and qualifying for States, but scoring points at States this year, maybe in two events, the 500 and 200."
Tyler Hong's older brother, Nick, will also shine bright this season.
Nick contributed heavily in the relays last season, helping the Wildcats' 200 medley relay squad earn a spot in the State Meet. A hard worker, Nick will turn heads this season.
"Nick has done a nice improvement and worked hard this summer. He's shaping up to be a qualifier in the breaststroke, maybe the IM. He'll be an integral part of the relays," Lehto said.
In the speed events, another junior will be making a name for himself – John Soeder.
Soeder is a strong sprinter and will be relied upon to lead the Wildcats in that role. Lehto will be looking for Soeder to have a big season, particularly following the graduation of Cian O'Haimhirgin.
Two other swimmers to watch are Thomas Metz and John Libertin. The sophomore and senior will be instrumental in relays for the Wildcats.
In February, Alex Claus capped off one of the most distinguished diving careers in Saint Ignatius history with a fourth place finish at States. Claus matriculated to the University of South Carolina this fall, accepting a scholarship for diving.
This season, his younger brother, Will, takes center stage after a nice freshman campaign.
Want to hear scary news for opponents and the state of Ohio? Will's ceiling is even higher than Alex's.
"I saw Alex recently – he's doing well at South Carolina. I'm not the diving coach, but if you look at which of those two divers has the higher potential, it's Will," said Lehto. "Will can get it done, it's Will believing in himself to get it done. If he does, he'll be a top three diver for this year."
Another diver to keep an eye on is Noah Keim. The junior has been working hard, and will make a difference for the Wildcats this season.
"Noah has come a long way," Lehto said. "I saw him dive a little bit, he's definitely improved."
Right from the start, the Wildcats will have a challenging schedule.
The journey to Canton begins on Friday with a road dual meet at Toledo St. Francis and continues into Saturday with the Swim for the Cure at University School and the Solon Relays.
"Our first meet is our toughest – St. Francis is top 3 in the state," Lehto said. "We'll face some pretty tough teams. We'll face the top 3 in D1 or D2. Hawken and University School are perennial D2 powerhouses."
The Wildcats will visit Hawken on December 21 and University School on January 2. The results of the two meets will be an early bellweather for the Wildcats.
The Aqua Cats will offer plenty of chances for fans to support the team at Cleveland State. The Wildcats will host the Viking Swimming Diving Meet on December 7-8, Shaker Heights on December 22, Solon and Strongsville on December 28, the Wally Relays on December 29, St. Edward on January 4, and Brunswick on Senior Night on January 25.
Other highlights include the Northeast Classic at the University of Akron on January 12 and a trip to Baltimore for the National Catholic Championships on January 19-20.
As Coach Lehto told students at Thursday's Winter Sports Rally, the Wildcats will play some of the top competition in the state.
But despite the challenges, the Wildcats will be a team to contend with throughout the season, especially in February during the postseason.
With such a young squad, the Wildcats are poised for success in 2018-19 and beyond.