Cats complete climb as sectional star

Photos by Carolyn Van Houten/The Herald
Jasper’s team gathered with the trophy after the Wildcats claimed the sectional title in dominating fashion Saturday at the Jasper High School Natatorium. Winning 11 of 12 events, the Wildcats stormed past six-time defending champion Bedford North Lawrence for their first sectional title since 2007. For a gallery of photos, click here.

By JOE JASINSKI
Herald Sports Writer

JASPER — The scene hadn’t been like this for quite some time.

Ever since Alec Vennekotter could remember, the talk always revolved around the Bedford North Lawrence boys swim team and its stranglehold on the sectional stage. Fellow senior Jackson Beckman recalls that recurrent disappointment, particularly his sophomore year when Jasper finished second to the Stars despite a performance that included two school-record relay times.

Vennekotter

For six straight years following Jasper’s 2007 sectional title, the Wildcats gunned for their next. For six straight years, Bedford North Lawrence was just too good.

Until Saturday.

From the Wildcats’ six-second victory over BNL in the opening 200-yard medley relay to their emphatic 19-second sprint past the Stars in the afternoon’s concluding 400 freestyle relay, Jasper finally recreated that long-desired scene: swimmers converging on the podium, the sectional trophy in its grasp, basking in a joy not felt for quite some time.

“The last couple years, we just didn’t have the numbers. We had the talent, we just didn’t have the numbers,” Wildcat senior Cole Erny said. “This year, we finally had the numbers … and we knew we could capitalize on it.”

Cash in on a newfound depth, they did. The Wildcats (465 points) orchestrated a three-relay sweep at the sectional for the first time in school history and collared titles in eight of the nine individual events to outpace Bedford North Lawrence (374), while Heritage Hills (233) finished third — the Pats’ best finish since 2004.

Erny

Northeast Dubois (136) earned seventh place while Southridge (109) rounded out the 10-team field at the Jasper High School Natatorium.

The day seemed more of a celebration than anything else for the Cats, who never trailed after Vennekotter and Beckman teamed with Mitch Mehringer and Ben Nolan in the 200 medley relay. From there, the blue ribbons piled up as Jasper coach Jenae Gill had expected, but with some definite surprises along the way.

Beckman predictably took both the 50 and 100 free, followed by Vennekotter less than a second later in the 50. Erny grabbed first in the 200 and repeated as sectional champ in the 500 free, as an anxious Gill paced up and down the side of the pool, tracking each one of Erny’s swift splits until he touched the wall in 4:54.55 — a 12-second improvement from the previous year.

Gill lauded Nolan’s effort in the 100 butterfly, where the sophomore clipped Vincennes Lincoln’s Jack Skinner by less than a second, as well as Vennekotter’s victory in the 100 backstroke, an event the senior didn’t even compete in at last year’s sectional.

Meanwhile, Mehringer not only defended his title in the 100 breaststroke (1:02.27), but also rewrote his own school record by seven-hundredths of a second. And separated by just three-tenths of a point, Luke Hoffman (370.50) and Austin Young finished first and second in diving, respectively, for the Cats.

The tandem’s assessment of diving coach Heath Hanselman’s 2 1⁄2-flip celebratory post-meet dive, however, was a bit harsher.

“Six-point-five,” Hoffman scored the attempt.

“He excessively calibrated,” an unimpressed Young critiqued before both divers received a hug from a soaked Hanselman.

Jasper’s Mitch Mehringer swam the 100-yard breaststroke in 1:02.27, re-setting his own school record.

More than anything though, the Cats’ victory presented evidence about the work rate of a group that “trained harder than what most of them ever have in their lives,” Gill said.

“I’ve been telling the boys, ”˜You have an opportunity here to do something really big. … You’ve put in training all year.’ I mean, they have,” said the second-year Wildcat coach, whose team picked up first and second place in four events.

“Everybody has kind of taken ownership. They knew what they were capable of doing, but they knew the amount of work it would take to get there.”

Similarly exuberant was Heritage Hills coach Phil Bradley, who carried high expectations entering the season for a group that finished seventh at last year’s sectional.

The proof of progress popped up continually. Logan Ayer chopped two seconds off his personal best in his seventh-place finish in the 100 backstroke, and Nick Waninger dropped five seconds off his top time in the 200 individual medley before a one-second improvement in the breaststroke, in which he finished sixth.

Then there was Drew McCutchan, who shaved nine seconds off his personal record in the 500 free en route to a third-place finish. The junior also anchored the Pats’ 200 and 400 free relay teams, which both paddled into third place, a “huge, huge difference from last year,” Bradley said.

“We’re working hard every day in the pool, practicing hard and just trying to get faster,” said McCutchan, who helped the Pats stave off both Pike Central and Tell City in the 400 free relay after both schools topped Heritage Hills in the event at the Pocket Athletic Conference meet a month prior.

As Bradley sees it, the third-place finish should launch a group that returns most of its key cogs next year.

“I know the potential is there. I’m glad they’re starting to see it,” Bradley said. “Next year, we’re looking for pretty good things.”

Heritage Hills’ Drew McCutchan signaled to his coach after coming in third in the 500-yard freestyle at Saturday’s sectional. McCutchan also helped two Patriot relay teams secure third place.

Potential is also the name of the game for Northeast Dubois’ Kobi Knies, who filled the shoes of 2013 Jeep graduate and two-time sectional champion Lucas Schulthies in the sprint freestyle events.

The sophomore described the sensation of his first sectional final heats as “a happy medium” of angst and adrenaline, while his third-place time in the 100 free and fourth-place effort in the 50 portrayed little fear at all.

For an underclassman, the early exposure is huge.

“I feel like it’s going to help me quite a bit, especially in the long run,” said Knies, who linked with Caleb Scherzinger, Evan Bauer and Justin Kahle for a fourth-place spot in the 200 medley relay and a fifth-place time in the 200 free relay. “Senior year, hopefully I can be up where (the event winners) were. That’s where I want to be.”

Patience paid for Southridge’s Luke Siddons, who broke the 25-second barrier in the 50 free for the first time in his career (24.68), taking seventh in the event.

“Took me four years,” a self-critical Siddons offered with a smile. “So that felt good.”

Siddons, the Raiders’ lone senior, also topped Heritage Hills’ Donovan Aders in the event by more than a second. In six head-to-head battles between the two in the 50 free the last two years, Siddons topped Aders four times, although they’d split the two meetings this season prior to Saturday.

For both, the “silent rivalry” is there, Aders said. “We’ve never really said anything about it, but it’s there.”

“He doesn’t know it, but yeah,” Siddons joked about the feud. “It was my goal to beat him (in the 50 free). But then he beat me in the 100, so I guess we’re even.”

As for the Cats, they can claim supremacy once again after notching their fifth sectional championship in program history.

Moments after being the first to hoist the trophy, Beckman struggled in finding words to encapsulate the feeling. The senior underwent three operations to remove a large portion of his colon last year, a process that sidelined him for his entire junior season. Now able to compete at this stage, with this group, for this result?

“Speechless,” Beckman said, the sectional trophy still in hand. “I’m happy it happened senior year. This is something to remember.”

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