Competition is heating up toward a boiling point in the pool for the Sterling boys swimming team.
All 38 swimmers on roster took aim at a pair of meets last week for the first time. Three more meets are on the docket this week. In less than a month, it's the NIIC meet, leading into sectionals.
For the Golden Warriors' captains, added pressure is no sweat. Been there. Dealt with that.
But for swimming standouts Keanu Interone and Keaton Dir, multisport star Tanner Morse and state-caliber golfer Andrew Blackburn, the top priority is helping the other 34 members of the team achieve greatness.
For evidence of their commitment to that goal, review Exhibit A: the 400-yard freestyle relay "B" team of Morse, Nick Mattox, Brandon Pillars and Daniel Saathoff placing third in the last event of a dual meet in Moline. The Golden Warriors won the meet 93.5-92.5, thanks to taking silver and bronze in the finale.
"If we didn't get second and third, then we would've been the ones that lost by one point," Sterling coach Kyle Ruiz said.
"This year, that's one thing I think we've been a lot better at: As a team unit, we're cheering a lot more," said Sterling senior Keanu Interone, who anchored the "A" team that was edged by the Maroons' top team. "We're more unified. If it's a close race, we're all on our feet. We want our team to win."
Interone says he's relishing his role as a captain much more since committing to swim for the University of Utah.
"It's all about helping others," he said. "We want to set a good role model for them to look up to, and show them that if you work hard – like all of us have – you can get to this position."
Dir, like Interone, has been swimming competitvely for almost 10 years. He owns the top 500 free time in the area of 5 minutes, 10.60 seconds, a shade more than 5 seconds faster than his closest competition. Also a cross country standout, he's got the lungs for the long haul.
"The big difference from running is the muscles that you use, but mentally it's all the same. You just have to keep going," Dir said. "It's tough mentally and physically. You just have to put all your training together and trust in it."
Dir is the only junior in the bunch. The other three are seniors.
Interone, who placed second in the 100 breaststroke at state last February, has a remarkable 4-second advantage (1:00.09) in the event over anyone else in the area.
Then there's the baseball and football star Morse, and the scratch golfer Blackburn. The former first took to diving when the team asked him to toe the water during sectionals his sophomore year.
"I hadn't dove before, but they knew I was athletic," Morse said. "It sort of went from there. Most of it is the approach, and if you can repeat your movements in the air. That's the biggest part of diving."
Swimming events get his competitive juices flowing even more than being flushed from the pocket or a clutch at-bat with two outs in the bottom of the seventh.
"More than any other sport, finishing out a race is the most competitive thing," Morse said. "You can see to your left or right. You see they're right on your tail, or you need to catch up. You just have to hold your breath and touch them out."
"In golf, you're only with the three other people you're playing with," Blackburn added. "In swimming, they guys who are competing with you are right next to you. It's all about who's got the most heart and who's gonna finish the race stronger."
That's not to say the pressure is greater in swimming than, say, taking aim at a field of the state's finest at Weibring Golf Course in Normal. It's just a different brand of pressure, is all.
"Really, it's a whole different feel in swimming," said Blackburn, who tied for 15th in the 2A state meet in mid-October. "In golf, you're grinding for 6 hours. In swimming, you have 30 seconds to do what you have to do in your race. It's a lot of pressure."
Ruiz credits his captains for what he calls a "very close team."
"You know the work ethic's already there," he said. "They're going to get in and do the work. I can ask them to do a certain task, and they're going to do it to the best of their ability, because they have that drive. They've seen it all, and they've helped out the younger and new guys as best they can."
His "B" team delivering in Moline shows the whole team is watching its leaders' every stroke. That should lend to more breakthrough performances over the next 7 weeks.
"Once we get to the conference meets and sectional meets, we'll be used to the close races," Ruiz said. "Then it's not something you're surprised by when you get to the higher level meet. Then you end up being the guy who gets your hand to the wall first."
• Sterling, Newman at Morrison triangular, 5 p.m. today
• Sterling, Woodstock North at Harlem triangular, 4:30 p.m. Thursday
• Jefferson Invitational, 11 a.m. Saturday
* – See Thursday's section for the top 3 swimmers in every event in the area