STUART — Finally, after 71 years, it’s time to stand up and cheer for a historic breakthrough. For the first time since 1946 and for only the second time in 97 years, a Hillsborough County swim team has won a state title.
At Friday’s Class 2A meet, Jesuit won with depth (scoring points in every event), sparkling performances at the top of the lineup and a great deal of emotion after a heart-wrenching season. Final score: Jesuit 271, Gulliver Prep 244.
Holding the coveted team title trophy beside the pool at Sailfish Splashpark Aquatic Athletics Center, Jesuit coach Bill Shaffer spoke to the meaning for this particular victory. The team struggled with the death of 14-year-old Cailin Cannella, who swam for Academy of the Holy Names, which practices every day alongside Jesuit’s boys.
"I walked out this morning and a rainbow appeared and I said, ‘Cailin is looking down us, she’s watching out for us,’?" Shaffer said of Cannella, who died in September after almost a year battling osteosarcoma, a bone cancer that often affects children. "I told her that we’re going to go out and bring home that state title trophy for her."
On Friday, the inspiration surged through the whole team, which featured some sparkling performances: Brendan Driscoll, who won the 500 free in four minutes, 29.5 seconds (almost five seconds ahead of the runnerup), placed third in the 200 free and helped the 400-free relay to a runnerup finish; Chris Jennings, who placed third in the 50 free (21.27) and the 100 breaststroke (58.47) and helped the Tigers to second in the 200 medley relay; and Sam Sands, who finished third in the 100 free (45.98), fifth in the 50 free (21.50), while helping the Tigers to victory in the 200 free relay.
Before Jesuit’s victory, the only other Hillsborough County team to win a state team swim title was Hillsborough High in 1946.
The last swim team from Tampa Bay to claim a state team title was Palm Harbor University, which won in 2013 after also capturing titles in 2011 and 2008.
A girls team from Hillsborough County has never won a state team title, a streak that dates to 1920, the first year the state high school meet was held.
The Academy of the Holy Names girls, who placed second as a team last year, came back this year to finish second again. The Jaguars had 163 points, 154 behind champion Gulliver Prep.
No more bugs
Lakewood senior Ethan Long was plenty frustrated after last year’s second-place finishes in both the 100 and 200 free finals.
That’s because Long was suffering with an illness that jacked his temperature to 104 degrees and weakened him terribly.
On Friday night, however, Long still wasn’t perfectly healthy, struggling against an attack of strep throat, which came upon him the past couple days, despite trying to quarantine himself at his grandmother’s house.
"I couldn’t believe it," Long said. "I went to the doctor and he gave me some meds that worked pretty well. I felt okay (Friday) and got it done."
Did he ever.
In the end, Long was plenty happy with a gold medal hanging around his neck after 200-free victory in 1:38.92. Long also came back to place second in the 100 free in 45.84 seconds.
Long’s victory also makes him the first boys swimmer from Lakewood to win a state title since 1993.
Record for Ramsey
Two-time defending state champion Jabari Ramsey made it three state titles on Friday night — with a couple of bonuses for good measure.
Not only did Ramsey take his third straight gold medal in the 100 breaststroke in 56.11 seconds, but he helped his Land O’Lakes teammates win the 200 medley relay in 1:35.97, beating runnerup Jesuit by .36 seconds — a team victory that he said he loved more than anything.
"Winning that relay was the highlight of my career because that was a team victory with guys who have worked hard every day with me," Ramsey said. "Winning the three individual titles is great, but I don’t know if I could have been happier after that relay victory."
The three individual titles ties him with former Mitchell star Devin McCaffrey for most career individual state titles by a North Suncoast swimmer.
A couple of years after finishing third at the state meet in the 200 and 500 free finals, Land O’Lakes junior Taylor Ward was back in the state-meet final mix. Resoundingly.
Ward, who skipped last year’s state finals after "some challenges," left the pool happy with silvers in the 200 free (1:50.27) and the 500 free (4:56.57).