HHS boys capture first sectional swim title

Depth makes difference in championship

By: John E. Powers
   NORTH BRUNSWICK — The Hillsborough High School boys’ swimming team needed everybody Monday evening against West Windsor-Plainsboro South in the Central Jersey Public School A championship at the North Brunswick High School pool.
   The Raiders needed the leadership of co-captains Evan Gargulio and Mark Green. They needed the talent of speedy freshman Pat Kuehne and the consistency of Frank Ippolito. Hillsborough needed the expertise and knowledge of their head coach, Todd Sudol, who had spent so much time poring over scouting reports and mapping out possible scenarios against West Windsor-Plainsboro South.
   And the Raiders needed the Hillsborough High girls’ swimming team, who chanted, sang and stood alongside the pool to help their classmates and fellow competitors along. The Raiders needed virtually everybody who swam for them, including unheralded contributors like Tim Rauch, James Vanbiervliet, Sean Downey, Scott Prow, Eric Horowitz, Rich Byrne and Devin Gunasekara.
   And, in the end, and because of them, the Raiders roared in celebration with their first sectional title — an exciting 90-80 win that was a testimony to their deep talent.
   The team was scheduled to swim in the state semifinals Thursday at The College of New Jersey against Westfield at 6 p.m.
   That was the last thing the Raiders were worrying about Monday night.
   Last year, the 14-1 Raiders fell in the sectional final in the same pool to Bridgewater-Raritan. Two years ago, it was a loss to B-R in the sectional semifinals that stopped Hillsborough’s dream.
   The HHS athletes couldn’t wait to finally dodge their nemesis — who lost in the North Jersey sectional final to Westfield Monday — and start their own tradition.
   "Awesome," Green said. "It seemed we never could get past Bridgewater-Raritan. Finally, we don’t have to go through them, but we still have the meet of our lives. We came in here not knowing anything about them. We just came in here and went."
   Green stood proudly alongside Gargulio on the diving board lifting the sectional title trophy in the air. Their teammates joined them and their parents, who prodded them with gestures and cheering throughout the tense meet, applauded them again.
   The Raiders didn’t take the lead until the meet’s eighth event — the 200 freestyle relay — when they 1-2 in the event. The foursome of Kuehne, Downey, Gargulio and Prow went 1:34.82 to give the Raiders a 65-59 advantage they wouldn’t relinquish.
   "From the free on it was our meet, we just knew that from there on out there was no stopping us," Green said. "It was an incredible meet. A lot of points went their way at the beginning of the meet which could have turned it around."
   Green, James Vanbiervliet and Gunasekara went 2-3-4 in the next event — the 100-yard backstroke — and the lead was 74-66. Kuehne and Frank Ippolito followed with a 1-2 finish in the 100-yard breaststroke and the lead moved to 84-72. Finally, the title was clinched when Green finished the second-place 400-yard relay.
   Sudol pointed out that the Raiders’ magic number was 86 points.
   "All we needed was a third place, Green said. "Every ounce of me was holding back in trying to catch that kid, but I had to. We didn’t want anything happening."
   Green said he was nervous throughout the day, thinking about the meet.
   "Since we lost to Bridgewater last year in the finals, this is what we thought about," Green said.
   The Raiders won just three of the 11 events — Green in the 100 freestyle, Kuehne in the 100 breaststroke and the 200 freestyle relay.
   "Our big turnaround had to be the 200 freestyle relay," said Sudol, now in his fourth year in charge of the HHS program. "Our strength is in freestyle. We’re a sprint-oriented team as well as having talented stroke swimmers like our back and breaststrokers. But our core is in the sprints and I knew that in our strength in the relays we could turn the meet around. I’m very confident in my team where I can load the back half of the meet. I don’t have to jump out to the early lead all the time. I’m confident what we can do later on. We can hang on with the best of them."
   Hillsborough’s depth was also a factor.
   Green, Vanbiervliet and Gunasekara went 2-3-4 in the 100 back. Gunasekara and Vanbiervliet were 3-4 in the 100 butterfly.
   Rauch had his personal best time in the 500 freestyle, going 5:05.37. Eric Horowitz was third in 5:26.36. Rauch had gone 5:10 at a YMCA meet this past weekend. Rauch also anchored the second-place 200-yard free relay. He was third in the 200 IM behind second-place Ippolito. Downey led a 2-3-4 finish in the 50 freestyle with Prow and Gargulio.
   "It was big when Timmy Rauch came in second in the 500 and then his relay takes second (in the 200 freestyle relay) in back-to-back meets," Gargulio said.
   Green agreed.
   "It was the heart he showed and he went so fast," Green said. "That really got me pumped up and Evan pumped up. It got us in an uproar, coming right before my event."
   Sudol said he told the team before the meet that it would be painful.
   "There was no pain we couldn’t surpass as a team and doing it together and that’s what we stressed," Sudol said. "I say it was our whole team. Everybody who swam contributed. I didn’t think it would be this close, but I give them credit."
   The Raiders trailed by as many as 10 points at 44-34 after the 100-yard butterfly as West Windsor’s Boone Wheeler and Dan Lee went 1-2. But that’s when the gap began to tighten.
   "At no time did I think our guys were down," Sudol said. "You can’t get rid of us until the very end."
   That’s when Sudol stopped his pacing and got to celebrate with his team. He hugged Green, shook hands with his assistant Rob Bateman and sighed.
   "I don’t think it’s going to stop here," Sudol said. "I’m big into tradition and big into starting things and this is something we started and hopefully it’ll continue on."
   It started Monday night with a sectional championship. Finally.