By BOB YORK –
It took just mere seconds after Oscar Miao had scripted “The End” to his swimming career at Deerfield Academy that pandemonium began to set in.
The Deerfield senior swims the anchor leg of the 400 freestyle relay. That makes him the final swimmer in the final event and means he’s the guy that gets to close out the good … the bad … or the ugly. And on this final night … this championship night … Miao, and those who went before him — Quinn Smith (’14), Matt Hrabchak (’15) and Miles Smachlo (’16) – helped turn something good into something great.
The Fab Four punched the clock in a winning time of 3:07.03, to ensure the Big Green its third New England Prep School Division I Swimming and Diving Championship in the past six years and its 20th title overall. But if this all sounds rather nonchalant, then Deerfield sure took the hard way to get there.
“We needed a perfect storm in order for us to have pulled this off,” explained Big Green coach John Burke. “We entered the relay trailing Suffield by seven points (356-349), so we not only needed to win the race, but we needed Exeter … or someone besides Suffield … to finish second. If we won and Suffield finished second, they still would have picked up enough points (34) to win the championship by one point.”
Well, Burke got exactly what he wished for. Deerfield picked up those 40 points with the relay win, as Exeter collected 34 by finishing second in 3:11.4. Suffield, meanwhile, took away 32 points as it placed third.
What all that translated to – nearly instantaneously – up on the bright lights of the scoreboard was that Deerfield finished atop the 10-team field with 389 points. Suffield wound up second, just one point back at 388, while Exeter placed third with 355 points. What that all translated to down on the pool deck and in the grandstand was that Deerfield’s pool party had suddenly transformed into a rock concert.
“It was sheer pandemonium,” said Burke, who personally took part in the levity by taking the coach’s customary victory leap into the pool off one of the starting blocks and his feat “is probably out there for the whole world to see because one of the students video taped it … I know … I saw it … he played it for me,” said Burke with a smile breaking from ear to ear.
“I must admit that going into this meet, I really didn’t know what to expect,” admitted a very relieved Deerfield mentor, whose swimmers had posted a 6-1-1 record during their dual-meet season. “What I did know was that Deerfield and Suffield were considered the co-favorites.” And that probably came as no surprise to anyone, considering that when the two teams battled during their only regular-season meeting, something took place that Burke has witnessed just once previously in his 11 years of coaching. “We ended up in a tie,” explained Burke, “we finished all even at 93-93.”
Miao, who shared this year’s John A. Pigeon Award with diver Taylor Clough (13) as the team’s Most Valuable Participants, combined with Smith to serve as catalysts for Deerfield’s trek to the title by earning four goal medals each. In addition to supplying half the horsepower during their pennant-clinching 400 freestyle, they teamed up with Smachlo and Ben Wood (13) to win the 200 medley relay in a New England record-setting time of 1:33.85. During individual competition, meanwhile, Miao captured the 50 freestyle in a time of 21.09, and the 100 freestyle in 46.80. Smith was first in the 200 individual medley (1:49.85) and the 100 backstroke (51.49), while Hrabchak collected three golds, winning the 200 and 500 freestyle races in 1:41.99 and 4:30.24 respectively.
“This was certainly one of the most thrilling championship events I’ve ever been involved in,” said Miao, who will be taking his talents in the 50 freestyle to Yale University in the fall. “That final race was just incredible … but I really wasn’t nervous. I think I was too focused on what my teammates were doing and what I was going to have to do to be nervous.
“Besides,” added Miao, “my three teammates who had competed before me had provided me with a comfortable lead and I knew that if I swam the way I’m capable of swimming, that we’d be in pretty good shape.”
As for his competitors in the anchor leg, Miao was getting positive vibes about what would be going on around him during his final paddle across Koch Pool. “We’d competed against both Exeter and Suffield during the regular season and I felt all things being equal, the Exeter swimmer had the nod over Suffield’s swimmer.”
“As the final lap unfolded, everything was looking good for us,” said Hrabchak, who, by this point in time was strictly a spectator, having competed in the second leg of the race. “You could see Oscar was the first into the final turn … then it was Exeter … then Suffield. Then, as the swimmers got closer to us, you could see the Exeter swimmer had about a half-body length lead over the Suffield swimmer and that’s when we knew we had it … and that’s when everyone started going nuts.”
Not all the gold-medal action took place in the pool, however. Some of it took place over the pool, and that’s exactly where Clough was capturing the one-meter diving competition to become just the second diver in NEPSAC history to be named chairman of the board for four consecutive years. Grant Gritzmacher, who dove for Hopkins School from 1993 to 1996 and who is the swim coach at Westminster School also won the event four years in a row.
“It’s been a great run,” said the Dartmouth College-bound Clough, of his four titles and a four-year undefeated dual-meet record of 36-0. “I think you can attribute the success I’ve enjoyed here at Deerfield to some outstanding coaching and an ability to focus on the job at hand.”
A gold medal and a spot in the history books weren’t the only things Clough came away with on this night of nights, however. He capped off the evening by being named recipient of the Babcock Award, which is annually presented to the most valuable participant in the boys meet.
The awards celebration marked the first time in Deerfield’s swimming annals that the school swept these MVP awards. Jenner McLeod (’13) who helped pave the Big Green girls to a third-place finish in their championship meet by capturing four first-place finishes, earned the Grace Robertson Award as the girls MVP. It marked the third time in the past four years that a Deerfield girl had won the trophy. Last year, Liza Bragg (’13) was the award’s recipient, while Julia Pielock won it in 2010.
The Big Green also picked up a pair of silver medals and a bronze medal on the evening. Smachlo finished second in the 100 butterfly in 52.60, while Wood took second in the 100 breaststroke in 59.29. Deerfield’s 200 freestyle relay team, which consisted of Conor Sullivan (’15), who shared this year’s Coaches’ Cup with Wyatt Sharpe (’13), Travis Russell (’14), Doug Vallar (’14) and Hrabchak wound up third in a clocking of 1:27.82.
Although the Big Green failed to pick up first-place points in these three events, they still proved crucial in allowing Deerfield to come away with the top prize. Just think, Smachlo picked up 17 points for his second-place effort in the butterfly, while Suffield placed fourth less than one second later to earn 15 points. Reverse that finish and Suffield wins the crown.
Wood’s second spot in the breaststroke earned him 17 points, while Suffield placed third, less than two seconds back to earn 16 points. Switch those two results and you end up in a tie. As for the 200 freestyle relay, Suffield took the blue ribbon in that event, which was good for 40 points. The 32 points Deerfield picked up for its third-place finish, meanwhile, allowed the hosts to keep the Connecticut contingent within striking distance.