FORTVILLE — He’s not afraid to admit it. Cole Case cried recently.
It was understandable. As the Mt. Vernon senior swimmer prepared to leave the New Palestine natatorium Monday evening for the final time in his high school career, he let sink in the reality of what he had just accomplished.
“Tadpole Cole” had secured four sectional championships, smashed three school milestones, broken two sectional records and was returning to the Indiana University Natatorium at IUPUI, the mecca of American swimming, to test his mettle against Indiana’s elite.
The situation overwhelmed him. Tears began to trickle down his cheeks.
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Just a few years ago, such success would have been unthinkable. One sectional title, a pipe dream. Four, beyond imagination.
“It couldn’t have been any better that it was,” said Case, pausing to put himself back in the moment. “I’m kind of still in shock that all that happened.”
It did, and now Case will lead a group of seven Marauders into today’s state championship preliminaries at IUPUI.
He will compete in the 200-yard medley and 400 freestyle relays, as well as individually in the 100-yard freestyle and his signature event, the 100-yard backstroke. Case made it to IUPUI last season with a Mt. Vernon relay squad.
With his 12th seeding in the 100 backstroke, Case is positioned to be the Marauders’ best hope of sending a swimmer to Saturday’s semifinals for the first time since 2012.
Funny how things work out. Four years ago, Case said, he didn’t even know how to do a backstroke start. Now he swims the race in 52.27, up to five seconds faster than fellow state qualifiers.
When asked why, after two seasons of competing only during the high school season, he decided to turn swimming from hobby into a habit, it did not take him long to begin talking about Bailey Willoughby.
Willoughby, a 2013 Greenfield-Central graduate, is the ex-owner of the title, “fastest backstroker in the New Palestine Sectional.”
Than honor now belongs to Case, and Willoughby has only himself to blame for it.
When Case watched Willoughby swim as an underclassmen, he watched him with envy. He wanted to be what Willoughby was. He wanted to compete with the best in the county and knew swimming part-time was never going to allow it.
So, he joined Southeastern Swim Club during the summer before his junior year and began training with the enemy.
Well, that is not exactly how either of them saw it. After hundreds of hours working together, they became friends.
In fact, when Case bested Willoughby’s backstroke record by more than a second on Monday, the three-time state qualifier and Franklin College swimmer was there to greet him with a hug.
“Congratulations,” Willoughby told Case. “You deserve it.”
Case’s coach, Matt Kruse, could not agree more.
Kruse said Case put in the hours and effort and has earned what he’s accomplished.
“Watching his swim his freshman year and seeing him swim now, it’s night and day,” Kruse said. “I mean, he brought a 1:03 (in the 100 backstroke) down to a 52 — and he might drop it even lower at state. … He went from being just a high school swimmer to a state qualifier.”
Heading into this season, Case knew he had improved to the point that he might have a shot at making a state championship appearance. An appearance. That was all he initially had in mind.
But his goals changed after a fateful meet against Connersville back in January.
“It was the meet right after Christmas break,” Case said. “Our training was so tough I was just beat down. I barely had energy to walk up the stairs. But I told myself to push through it. I even remember saying, ‘Forget it, I’m going for the (school) backstroke record.’”
That was not the first time he made that declaration, though.
“Before every meet, he would walk into my office and be like, ‘I got this. They don’t have a chance,’” Kruse said. “It’s just his mindset. There is no, ‘Maybe I can do this’ with him. He’s always saying, ‘I’m going do it.’ Every single meet. That’s the competitor in him. He’s a racer.”
Despite feeling less than 100 percent, Case broke the record by .03 seconds.
“I muscled my way though that,” Case said. “I didn’t flow. And I still won.”
Victory inspired curiosity. Later than night, he went online to peek at how his time compared to other state swimmers. What he found was hope. At that time, he said, he had about the 13th or 14th fastest time in Indiana.
“Right then, I knew I had a chance of making it to Saturday.”
Case admitted it would be difficult to shake off the satisfaction of advancing past Friday’s preliminaries. Qualifying for Saturday would be unimaginable.
Then again, he’s thought that before.
Name: Cole Case
School: Mt. Vernon
Nickname: “Tadpole” Cole
Events: 200-yard medley relay, 100-yard freestlye, 100-yard backstroke, 400-yard free relay
Favorite event: 100-yard backstroke
Goal: Earn scholarship to swim at college, where he wants to study architecture.
The 2014-15 IHSAA Boys Swimming and Diving State Finals
When: 6 p.m. today (swimming prelims); 9 a.m. Saturday (diving prelims and semis), 1 p.m. Saturday (consolations and finals for all events).
Where: Indiana University Natatorium at IUPUI
Local competitors: Greenfield-Central’s Allen Forbes, Ethan Kile, Zach Cook, Jordan Cermak, Jared Tomer and Jacob Keener (diving); Mt. Vernon’s Cole Case, Zane Smith, Dixon Tierney, Bryce Gray, Matthew Bauchert, Daniel Majors and Timothy Broaders.
Webstream: Saturday’s championship and consolation finals will be streamed live at IHSAAtv.org beginning at 1 p.m.
Advancement: The top 16 in each swimming event during today’s prelims will return for competition Saturday, with the top eight individuals vying for state championship honors. Those finishing nine through 16 today will make up the competitors in the consolation heats. All diving will take place Saturday, with the top 20 of 32 competitors advancing from the prelims to the semis after five dives each. After three dives each in the semis, the top 16 will advance to the final round for another three dives each.
Though neither team will be sending competitors to today’s state finals, Eastern Hancock and New Palestine enjoyed successful conclusions to their seasons at Monday’s sectional.
The Dragons’ meet was a big success, longtime New Palestine coach Steve Maxwell said, especially considering one of their top swimmers, Joey Rogers, was in the hospital just days earlier dealing with mono.
“I thought we did really well. Joey did a good job coming back tonight. He still isn’t real strong, but he did a good job in his short races,” Maxwell said of his junior, who helped the Dragons to a team-best fifth-place finish in the 200-yard freestyle relay and a sixth-place finish in the 200 medley relay.
“We had great swims tonight. My two 500 (freestyle) guys, (Sutton) Biddle and (Matthew) Taylor-Smith had phenomenal swims for them. All the relays improved, and Conner Page swam really well, including lifetime bests in his backstroke (1:04.68) and his relays. It was a really good night for us, we just didn’t have a lot of bodies.”
Page came devastatingly close to qualifying for regionals as a diver. The top five scores advance, and his 259.05 trailed Connersville’s Mason Sullengerger by just .85 points. Though he was disappointed, Maxwell said, he will be in prime position to make his first regional cut next year.
Another bright spot Maxwell pointed to was that they will only lose one senior, Jake Mitchell, to graduation. Everyone else will return, which gives the coach hope for improvement next season.
“I’m encouraged,” Maxwell said. “We have five freshman coming in, and that will help, just on numbers alone.”
Eastern Hancock set four new school records during Monday’s meet. Chris Walton, Stefano Provenzi, Jacob Stacy and Deven Grose clocked a Royals-best 1:58.34 in the 200 medley relay. Kohler Kerber set milestones in the 200 freestyle (2:04.33), the 100 butterfly (58.47) and as part of the 400 freestyle relay team (3:54.02), along with Grose, Stacy and Provenzi.
Kerber, a freshman, was the first Royal to ever break a minute in the 100 butterfly, and his fifth-place finish in the event was the best in Eastern Hancock sectional history.
“What a way to finish off the season,” said Eastern Hancock coach Derek McCormick, whose team broke eight school records this season. “The boys performed great. We had multiple lifetime bests, records and top-16 finishers. It was an excellent season.”