In a supremely talented field of Pennsylvania’s best high school swimmers, it took mental strength, special skill and sometimes, even superior strategy to find success at the state’s swimming and diving championships.
For some, it took even a little more.
A few years ago, a group of current Crestwood seniors felt like fish out of water while trying to muddle through a sport their school no longer offered.
Before transferring to Coughlin this year, Terry Vrabec felt like a fish on a string.
And just this past week, Pittston Area’s Mia Nardone had her emotions filleted.
They all had one thing in common, though.
By the end of the PIAA championships this past weekend, they all felt vindicated.
“There are teams that come out and doubt us,” Crestwood freestyler Chris Lukasewski said. “We prove them wrong.”
He could have been speaking for all those Wyoming Valley Conference underdogs who shocked the state by pulling off personal victories in the PIAA meet.
Lukasewski’s teammate, Josh Grzech, spearheaded Crestwood’s success story by winning two state medals over the weekend to bring his career total to three. His brother, Joseph Grzech, swam in one consolation race and just missed making the state’s top 16 in another event. And Lukasewski went from a last-place seeding to a top-14 finish in the 50 freestyle, and missed the consolations of the 100 freestyle by .04 seconds.
“I mean, it means a whole lot,” said Josh Grzech, who earned medals for finishing sixth in the 100 butterfly and fifth in the 100 freestyle to go along with his eighth-place PIAA medal in the 100 fly last year. “All the hard work, all the dedication we’ve went through the past three years — finding a team, finding a place to practice — we put so much work and dedication into this, it’s something really special.
“Words can’t explain how I feel and how we all feel.”
Frank Tribendis remembers the request.
The highly-successful veteran Wyoming Valley West swimming coach welcomed the handful of swimmers who came to him from Mountain Top seeking some help — but he had some conditions.
“First thing I said was, as long as it didn’t interfere with our (Valley West) training and it did not take away from our kids, I’d be glad to work with them,” Tribendis said. “And it didn’t take away from our program. If anything, it added to it. They complemented our kids, especially Josh and Joe. All of them encouraged our kids, helped them, cheered them on.”
In the end, the Crestwood contingent heard more cheers than they could have imagined.
Lukasewski was the talk of the weekend when he pulled off a shocking run to the consolations of the 50 free, and nearly came up with another Saturday by moving from a No. 23 seeding in the 100 freestyle to 17th.
“Not having a team, to actually come down here and compete — and compete well — and make a name for ourselves, it truly does mean a lot,” Lukasewski said.
“In a way it was tough,” Lukasewski continued about the plight of Crestwood’s triumphant trio. “In other ways, it didn’t really affect us, because we got to train with Valley West and train with coach Tribendis. He’s been in the sport for so many years. The only difficult thing about not having it (a school team) was, we were not allowed to swim relays in districts. I believe we really could have been a state relay (team).”
Still, they’ve shared an unbreakable bond of victory that will last a lifetime.
“They’re my brothers,” said Joseph Grzech, who finished 15th in the 100 backstroke, “and we’ve had a good time together.”
It wasn’t such a great time for Nardone.
She spent the days leading up to the state tourney worrying about her mother, who was hospitalized. Yet, Nardone came through her girls 100 butterfly race like a champion, finishing in 16th place and making a return to the state’s consolations as a junior after missing them last year.
“I’m really happy she did as well as she did,” Pittston Area coach Amy Hazlet said. “I’m thrilled.”
Vrabec was seeking a change of pace from Holy Redeemer, his school last year. So he switched schools, believing he’d find more opportunity in the waters of his public school district at Coughlin.
It led him to an eighth-place PIAA medal in the breastroke Saturday — an event he entered as the 27th seed. That’s a jump of 19 places in one day.
“I just ripped one this morning, got in the finals,” said Vrabec, who chopped nearly three full seconds from his District 2 championship time and finished the state title meet in 1:01.08. “You know, I was really expecting a better time. But I’m happy to be getting a medal.”
It is believed to be the first boys state swimming medal for Coughlin — “At least in recent years,” Coughlin coach Donnie Williams said — and it was extremely gratifying to Vrabec.
“With switching the schools, doing it all myself, really, I got my medal, I’m glad for that,” Vrabec said.
“He did well, he swam well,” Williams said. “I think he was vindicated for the district meet. I’m proud of him. He really showed what he could do.”
And if the rest of the state didn’t foresee the potential of those underdogs before this weekend, now they all know. A certain pride packed deep down inside emerged through the PIAA waters and put a group of Wyoming Valley Conference swimmers who were supposed to be afterthoughts on top of the world.
“I’m happy,” Lukasewski said, “with what I did.”