Open season for the Blue Knights; 200 freestyle relay advances to the state open championship

By John Goralski

Sports Writer

Charlie Morelli was the first to hit the water at Yale University during the first leg of the 200 freestyle relay. He was the first one to the far wall and the first one to complete the lap. Just a few days earlier the Knights left the Class LL finals with no idea if they would even make the cut for the 2014 CT State Open, but Morelli wasn’t about to squander his final chance of the season.

His efforts on the first lap (22.86) were good enough to leapfrog him into all-conference honors in the 50 freestyle.

“Since you’re coming off a flat start when you lead off a relay, your time is eligible for consideration in the individual event,” said Blue Knight swim coach Evan Tuttle. “It was a really exciting start for our day.”

Morelli was just setting the pace. On Saturday, March 22, Southington was a last minute replacement when a Meriden relay scratched from competition, but the Knights embraced the challenge.

Three of the four members trimmed more than one half second off their seed times. The Knights trimmed almost two seconds off their previous best time, and Southington’s relay (1:31.79) leapt over eight teams to finish 16th overall.

“It was one of the most exciting and rewarding races that I’ve ever seen,” said Tuttle. “It was right up there with Mike Smigelski winning the state open a few years ago. We didn’t get the win, but we went from first alternate last year and picked up nine spots.”

Kolton Jankowski held his seed pace in the second leg. Nick Brazil trimmed 0.56 seconds off his time in the third leg, and Joe Taglia beat his previous time by 1.04 seconds to push the Knights across the finish line. The Blue Knight foursome had already bested their fastest time by almost two seconds at the Class LL finals on Wednesday at Wesleyan. Three days later, they raised the bar again.

“Originally, I was looking at their seed time and I thought it was already pushing the envelope, but those kids found something left in the tank,” said the coach. “I’m sure that the excitement of being there was part of it, but three of them were seniors. This was their last opportunity. It was a tremendous effort.”

Even without the final race, Tuttle was pleased with his team’s postseason efforts. On Wednesday, March 19, Southington swimmers posted five best times in seven races at the Class LL finals at Wesleyan. Nobody medaled, but Tuttle was already surprised by his team’s efforts at the end against one of the strongest fields in history.

“We knew that it was going to be a tough competition because Class LL has never been so tough,” he said. “I think we had something like 10 state records set today, and a pool record. The state’s never been this fast, so to compete at this level and continue to drop time is all we were looking to do. We gave ourselves a chance, and that was our goal.”

In every relay, Southington raised the bar. Zack Blake, Matt Duszak, Morelli, and Peter Masters trimmed a few hundredth off their time in the 200 medley relay (1:46.93) to finish 14th overall. Morelli, Jankowski, Brazil, and Taglia trimmed two seconds off their previous best in the 200 freestyle relay (1:33.01) and more than four seconds in the 400 freestyle relay (3:28.74).

Even in the individual races, Southington swimmers held their own. Taglia (23.46) and Morelli (23.5) both trimmed time off their seed scores in the 50 freestyle. Duszak trimmed almost a full second off his seed time in the 100 breaststroke (1:06.79). Taglia didn’t beat his previous best in the 100 freestyle (51.54), but he leapfrogged a few spots to finish 20th overall.

“They’ve done everything that I’ve asked from them. My hat’s off to them, and they’ve already exceeded all my expectations,” said Tuttle. “Believe me, they won’t remember their time or their place in five or 10 years, but they’ll remember the effort that they put in to get her. They’ll remember the burning in their lungs when they finished the race, and they’ll remember that they did everything they could.”

With their finish at the open, Southington’s winter campaign comes to an end. Taglia, Morelli, Masters, and Jankowski finished with their strongest efforts. Brazil, Duszak, and Blake will return next year to build on the winter’s success.

Tuttle has already thrown down the gauntlet to his returning swimmers.

“We have 11 seniors, and they’ll be tough to replace—especially those ones that were here today. They’ve led this team all season, but it’s so rewarding to see how far they’ve come and to see them finish their careers so strong,” said Tuttle. “Next year, we’re going to continue to raise expectations. As soon as we relax on that, we’ll lose our focus and motivation. We’ll continue to raise the bar even higher.”

To comment on this story or to contact sports writer John Goralski, email him at jgoralski@southingtonobserver.com.

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