MERIDEN — In the beginning, there was a two-month delay and a limit to the number of swimmers who could occupy a single lane in a pool.
In the end, the only limit to the 2021 high school boys swimming and diving season was the lack of state championship meets.
In between, there was steadily widening water — fast water, with many a school record tumbling in the wake.
Perhaps more than any scholastic sport, boys swimming mirrored the state’s progress with COVID-19 through the latter half of winter. Case numbers and times declined. Victories and vaccinations rose.
That sounds flip. Let’s just say the news improved with each passing week.
Remember, those pool restrictions were still in place when the CIAC gave the winter season the green light back in the still-dark days of January. Swim coaches, after the initial burst of euphoria, wondered how they could pull off practice.
When Gov. Ned Lamont eased the lane limits shortly thereafter along with most of the restrictions he had placed on recreational sports in late November, about the same time the CIAC had put a hold on the high school season, swimmers were back on the blocks.
Successful dual-meet seasons followed for most area squads. That includes the Meriden Co-op, which is enjoying a renaissance in both the boys and girls programs under veteran coach Ed Heath.
Cheshire again did well. Southington did, too.
The SCC held virtual meets. The CCC staged in-person duals.
That continued in the postseason, where in the absence of state championships it was up to the leagues to provide the “postseason experience” just as they had done in the fall.
For swimming, that meant no class meets, no State Open. For a second straight year, a conference crown would have to suffice as the choicest plum.
Area swimmers came away with four, led by a senior from Sheehan who has been a human riptide since his freshman year.
The Titans may have won only one dual meet this season, but they had the No. 1 swimmer in Joey Zellner.
Here’s how Zellner, who is going on to swim Division I at Loyola University in Maryland, capped a high school career that had already seen him win two SCC titles in the 100-yard freestyle as an underclassman:
■Sheehan records in the 50-yard freestyle (21.32), 100 freestyle (47.10) and 200 individual medley (1:57.77); ■SCC championships in the 50 free and 100 breaststroke (58.01); ■SCC Most Outstanding Swimmer recognition.
All that between Feb. 22 and March 26, 2021.
The deeds of Joe Zellner will not be forgotten. How could they? They’re all over the record board that hangs above the Sheehan pool deck.
“He is definitely one of the best,” remarked Sheehan coach Keith Cargan. “Connor Robison comes to mind as probably the best Sheehan swimmer we had prior to Joey, but Connor swam different events. I think that in the ‘overall’ category, Joey may be the best we’ve seen.
“We’ve been lucky over the past decade to see some truly great talent walk through our doors,” Cargan added. “We have a really impressive record board. It’s exciting for us to wonder, ‘Who’s next?’”
Other area swimmers affixed their names to their school record boards, including Cheshire senior Justin Finkel, who claimed the area’s other individual conference crown by winning the SCC butterfly in a school-record 51.21.
Finkel was also third in the 50 freestyle (21.46) and swam a leg on Cheshire’s SCC-champion 400 freestyle relay.
And while he didn’t compete in these events at the SCC Championships, Finkel had the area’s top times in the 200 freestyle (1:48.63) and 500 free (4:43.9). He is going on to swim at Connecticut College.
“One of our most versatile swimmers,” Cheshire coach Dave Modzelewski said of Finkel. “He always stepped up at meets, broke a team record and, most importantly, helped lead his team through this crazy pandemic-shortened season.”
Crazy, socially distanced and masked up, except for when the swimmers and divers actually hit the water. And everyone was happy to have it. Here are the others who join Zellner and Finkel as the area’s best on the 2021 All-Record-Journal Team.Cheshire
When Cheshire boys coach Kevin Reeder had to step down shortly before the season began, Modzelewski stepped in.
This was ideal. Modzelewski, the Cheshire girls coach, had just piloted a team through a pandemic season, so he was already well-versed in the all the protocols.
He and the Cheshire boys went 8-2 led by a Fleet Five: Finkel, fellow seniors Harrison Hua, Martin Adlianitski and Noah Duncan, and junior Anmol Sapru.
Finkel, Hua, Adlianitski and Sapru combined on the SCC championship in the 400 freestyle relay (3:16.82).
Duncan, a diver bound for Fairfield University, won his event in 7 out of 10 dual meets. He hit for a 6-dive high of 262.80, then finished third in the SCC with an 11-dive 392.30.
Like his fellow senior captains Finkel and Hua, Duncan was a glue guy.
“He led our diving crew with poise and leadership, always helping out the younger divers while still perfecting his own dives,” Modzelewski remarked. “Noah was an essential part of keeping the divers and swimmers connected when sometimes they can seem like different sports.”
Ditto for Hua, who was something of a de facto assistant coach.
“I could always count on Harry for advice on his teammates or on lineup decisions,” confided Modzelewski. “He was our sprinter extraordinaire, but was always willing to swim whatever was needed — a true team player.”
The results bear it out. Hua won 11 races in five different events during the regular season. He also swam on 11 first-place relays.
For the SCC meet, Hua took third in the breaststroke (1:00.51) and fifth in the IM (1:59.26). Those times were second-best in the area to only Zellner.
Adlianitski was equally versatile. He was in the top five of area times in the backstroke and all four freestyles, from a 22.32 in the 50 to a 4:59 in the 500. A 48.78 in the 100 free earned the senior third place in the SCC.
“He came back to the team after taking last year off and quickly became our utility player and one of the biggest additions,” Modzelewski noted. “His sense of humor throughout the season helped keep the team calm under pressure, while his will to always want to improve showed the underclassmen what it takes to be successful.”
The top returning underclassman for the Rams will be Sapru. Along with swimming to SCC gold with the 400 relay, the junior was fifth in the 200 freestyle (1:48.78) and sixth in the IM (53.09).
“He always wanted the best out of himself and his teammates, and will be a great team player in his senior season,” said Modzelewski.Lyman Hall
The 2021 Trojans (6-4) saw the intersection of two eras. One cornerstone was finishing a checkered career. One was just getting started.
The senior was diver Elyse Boothroyd, a Coginchaug student who has been diving with LH throughout her career. She’s broken her school’s six-dive record on multiple occasions and, ultimately, signed off with a 248.075 compiled in her final dual meet.
Career-best marks followed in the postseason. With a 391.35, Boothroyd placed fourth in the SCC. That’s a Coginchaug record, too.
“She did all her personal best scores this season,” LH coach Donna Neary said of Boothroyd, who will dive at Central Connecticut State. “She worked hard. She was a great asset to the team on and off the board.”
As for the freshman, that was Jerick Lagamao.
Name it and Lagamao swam it and won it. He finished first in 18 of his 20 dual-meet races, winning at least once in every stroke and every freestyle distance.
Lagamao had the area’s best time in the backstroke: 55.44, which placed him seventh in the SCC. He was 11th in the butterfly at 56.33.
“Jerick just missed the backstroke school record,” Neary noted. “He was a great addition to our group. He took on a leadership role and led by example.”
Again: only a freshman.Meriden
So, apparently, Sam Hurlburt and Mehdi Moumen are the Sydney Carton and Charles Darney of Meriden swimming.
“It’s like the Tale of Two Cities,” chuckled coach Ed Heath. “Both swimmers have a different approach to their swimming.”
And, in the estimation of their coach, those lines righly intersect on the All-RJ team. Hurlburt and Moumen led the Meriden Co-op to a 5-2 dual-meet season.
Hurlburt, a Maloney junior, lowered his own school record in the 100 breaststroke to 1:02.43 and, in the process, broke the Co-op record of 1:03.50 previously held by Platt grad and collegiate All-American Tyler Prescott.
Moumen, a Platt sophomore, was Meriden’s top overall performer in 2021. He won 12 individual races in six different events and was a part of nine first-place relays.
“Sam is a very quiet kid who is most of the time very serious,” Heath noted. “He is a numbers guy, always wanting to know what his time is for practice sets and what his splits are for his events. His brain is always working on numbers and split times and what they have to be for success in the pool.
“Mehdi, on the other hand, is a very outspoken swimmer who enjoys having some fun while he swims,” Heath continued. “He usually has some good form of banter going on with the coaching staff or a teammate. He truly enjoys and has fun during practice or a meet.”
“Both are very talented swimmers,” said Heath. “They train very hard and are totally committed to the sport of swimming. Both train all year long to improve their craft. Both have set very high goals for themselves. The one thing I tell them before each event is to simply go out and RACE, and they both do that very well.
“Both swimmers bring out the best in each other,” Heath added. “They train side by side every day in practice. They may have a different approach to swimming, but still have the same results.”
In the CCC Pod D championships, Hurlburt wound up fifth in the breaststroke and sixth in the IM (2:10.12). Moumen was fourth in both the 50 free (23.45) and butterfly (56.21).
Moumen also swam on the 400 free relay team that placed third in CCC Pod D in a program-record time of 3:28.76. Moumen was joined on that relay by Joe Peralta, John Peralta and Spencer Studely.
The Peralta brothers went 3-4 in the 100 freestyle — John (52.42) followed by Joe (52.80). John Peralta, only a freshman, was also fourth in the 200 free (1:54.42).Southington
After graduating a deep and checkered senior class, one that Southington coach Evan Tuttle ranks among the strongest in program history, it would not have been surprising if the 2021 Blue Knights suffered a dropoff from their 10-1 season of 2020.
Except they didn’t. They had fewer meets — seven to last year’s 11 — yet still lost only one.
Led by a solid returning core and fleshed out by newcomers who managed to fill the vacated roles, the Blue Knights went 6-1 and were among the top teams in the Central Connecticut Conference when the postseason times were tabulated.
Landon Colby and Jackson Malsheske were a 1-2 punch at the top of the Big Blue ticket.
Colby, a junior, won 12 individual races during the dual-meet season and swam on 12 winning relays. Malsheske, a senior, took seven solo golds and 11 with relays.
They upped their game in the postseason. Colby broke a 28-year-old Southington record in the butterfly with a time of 52.0 that earned him second place overall in the CCC.
Colby was also second in the IM at 2:00.57, with Malsheske fourth in 2:04.07.
Malsheske’s top event is the 500 free and, with a 4:57.86, was one of just three area swimmers to go under five minutes in the event this season. He placed sixth overall in the CCC.
The Blue Knights also did well in all three relays. Here’s where their depth really came into play, with returning sophomore Matt Niro really shining along with newcomers like freshmen Alex LeClair and Peter Zalewski and first-year senior Brett Sheldrick.
Zalewski, Sheldrick and Niro, in combination with Colby, finished third overall in the CCC at 1:41.15.
Sheldrick is a club swimmer who came out for the Blue Knights for the first time this winter. The only Blue Knight to compete in every event, he won eight races in six different events during the regular season and factored into 10 first-place relays.
In the postseason, Sheldrick placed fourth overall in the CCC breaststroke (1:01.35) and sixth in the IM (2:08.46).
Then there was diving, where the Blue Knights often went 1-2-3 behind Alex Rosania, Nico Smith and Justin Vaillancourt.
Rosania, only a sophomore, was the leading light. He rewrote Southington’s 6-dive record with a 283.35 and then took down the 11-dive mark with a 463.90 that placed him third in the CCC.
Pretty solid stuff for a season awash with so much uncertainty.
“Thinking back to November and the delay of the winter season, there was doubt as to whether we would have a season at all,” Coach Tuttle mused. “Fast forward a few months and these athletes did not just go through the motions and complete their season, but exceeded all expectations of their season.
“They overcame every obstacle in their path; they controlled the controllables. They were the best versions of themselves each and every day, and they made their families, their coaches, their school, and their community incredibly proud.”
Tuttle was speaking for his team. We’ll let him speak for ours as well.