McDonogh swimming caps historic campaign with second straight MIAA A championship (VIDEO HERE!)

by Nelson Coffin
By a razor-thin margin, defending champion McDonogh School’s 200-yard medley relay squad of Colin Bitz, Nate Sukeena, Justin Nguyen and Ben Merz (1:34.37) made a statement in the first event of the MIAA A Conference swimming finals on Saturday that the Eagles were focused on taking another title.

McDonogh did just that, claiming its third title in eight years by topping Loyola Blakefield, 515-495, inside its Rosenburg Aquatic Center to cap the program’s first unbeaten season.

Gilman School (227), Mount St. Joseph (215), Calvert Hall College (212) and Archbishop Spalding (197) were close to each other, but never threatened the top finishers.

Beating Loyola’s Will Pelton, Matt Clark, Graham Lindner and Zach Reid (1 minute, 34.54 seconds) in the 200 medley relay helped to give the Eagles the momentum they would need to overcome history, considering that the Dons had won 21 of the previous 23 A Conference banners and 18 in a row until McDonogh snapped that streak in 2012.

McDonogh had also squeezed past the Dons in their dual meet by four points in January, leading to speculation that the Eagles should be favored in the final as well.

“That (first) relay really set the tone for us,” McDonogh coach Scott Ward said. “We knew it would really be a tough meet, and would have to count on our depth. The guys really came through.”

Loyola, though, resisted that notion, beginning with a win in the 200 freestyle behind junior Zach Reid that put Loyola ahead, 137-132, when he edged Smith (1:41.27 to 1:41.42). Loyola freshman Ryan Branon (1:43.82) earned key points by finishing third ahead of Archbishop Spalding’s Sam DeVito (1:44.90) and Nguyen (1:46.10).

Building on the Dons’ lead, Clark (1:48.52) rolled to a MIAA-record victory in the 200 individual medley over Gilman senior Max Verheyen (1:50.95) and Sukeena (1:53.96). Loyola junior Daniel Bednarski (1:56.76) and Mt. St. Joe’s Jacob Wallace (1:57.15) followed.

The Dons weren’t done yet, as Pelton (21.23) and Lindner (21.66) topped McDonogh’s Merz (21.71) and freshman Alan Cherches (21.90) in the 50 free with Calvert Hall senior Sam Garthright (22.13) in fifth place as Loyola stayed ahead, 189-174.

Branon made more hay in his first championship meet by touching home first in the 100 butterfly in 50.8, with McDonogh juniors Ryan Atwood (51.09) and Justin Nguyen (52.11) trailing. Lorenzo Gurri (54.44) and Austin Nguyen (54.6) were next in line as Loyola maintained its lead, 241-225.

Bitz slowed Loyola’s roll in the 100 free, turning in a 46.20 to beat Lindner (47.13), DeVito (47.61), Cherches (47.70) and Loyola sophomore Ben Myers (48.50) while slicing the Dons’ advantage to 284-279.

“We thought that once we got the 100 free, we were in pretty good shape,” Ward said. “We had slipped behind a little more than we had hoped. We had to respond. That was a really good swim for Colin.”

Smith made it back-to-back wins for the Eagles, topping Verheyen in the 500 free 4:32.11 to 4:37.91. Reid (4:48.15), Bitz (4:52.18) and Loyola senior Brett Legambi (4:53.57) were slightly behind the leaders in the grueling test of endurance and speed that helped the Eagles to grab a slim 331-329 lead.

“We expected it to be close,” Merz said. “We thought the 500 free would be the turning point.”

The Eagle relays were still perfect after Merz, Sukeena, Cherches and senior Matthew Shiels posted a 1:26.58 in the 200 free relay to touch the wall ahead of  Loyola’s Branon, Lindner, Myers and senior Abe Plimpton (1:27.17) to give the Eagles a 371-363 cushion.

McDonogh expanded its margin to 423-412 after Bitz’s win in the 100 backstroke, posting a 49.29 that was faster than Pelton (49.73), Fitch (52.16), Merz (52.47) and Bednarski (52.39).

Clark and Sukeena went down to the wire in the 100 breaststroke, with the Dons’ standout prevailing, 56.84-57.31. Wallace (58.28), Isayiw (59.15 and McDonogh freshman Stuart Zhu (59.81) were slightly behind the leaders as the Eagles stayed ahead, 476-455, in the team chase.

McDonogh’s 400 free relay squad of Cherches, Smith, J. Nguyen and Bitz (3:12.38) secured the victory in fine style, even though finishing behind Loyola’s Reid, Clark, Branon and Pelton (3:05.58).

The Eagles still had enough juice to beat the Dons for the second consecutive year.

Branon and Clark stood out for the Dons in defeat.

“We always knew that Ryan had the capacity to be great and Matt Clark was just fantastic,” Loyola coach Nick Breschi said. “But we kind of new after the first relay that it would be tough for us. But we kept fighting to the end. We just have to keep working hard.”

Connor Bitz, who was an unprecedented unanimous choice to be McDonogh’s captain, said that the Eagles “went out with heart,” in a year when they also beat New Jersey powerhouse Peddie School in a dual meet.

“Being a captain is honor enough,” he said. “Especially in a year when we went undefeated and beat Peddie.”











200-yard medley relay

1. McDONOGH (Colin Bitz, Nate Sukeena, Justin Nguyen, Ben Merz), 1:34.37

2. LOYOLA (Will Pelton, Matt Clark, Graham Lindner, Zach Reid), 1:34.54

3. MOUNT ST. JOSEPH (Connor Moran, Luke Isayiw, Jacob Wallace, Lorenzo Gurri), 1:37.34

4. GILMAN (Max Verheyen, Nathan Hedgecock, Phillip Morgan, Wade Perry), 1:38.20

5. CALVERT HALL (John Fitzsimmons, Logan Gallant, Will Urian, Peerce Nozieka), 1:46.99

200-yard freestyle

1. Reid (LOYOLA), 1:41.27

2. Zach Smith (MCDONOGH), 1:41.42

3. Ryan Branon (LOYOLA), 1:43.82

4. Sam DeVito (SPALDING), 1:44.90

5. Nguyen (McDONOGH), 1:46.10

200-yard IM

1. Clark (LOYOLA), 1:48.52

2. Verheyen (GILMAN), 1:50.95

3. Sukeena (MCDONOGH), 1:53.96

4. Bednarski (LOYOLA), 1:56.76

5. Wallace (MOUNT ST. JOSEPH), 1:57.15

50-yard freestyle

1. Pelton (LOYOLA), 21.23

2. Lindner (LOYOLA), 21.66

3. Merz (MCDONOGH), 21.71

4. Alan Cherches (MCDONOGH), 21.90

5. Sam Garthright (CALVERT HALL), 22.13

100-yard butterfly

1. Branon (LOYOLA), 50.48

2. Ryan Atwood (MCDONOGH), 51.09

3. J. Nguyen (MCDONOGH), 52.11

4. Gurri (MOUNT ST. JOSEPH), 52.16

5. Austin Nguyen (MCDONOGH), 54.08

100-yard freestyle

1. Bitz (MCDONOGH), 46.20

2. Lindner (LOYOLA), 47.13

3. DeVito (SPALDING), 47.61

4. Cherches (MCDONOGH), 47.70

5. Ben Myers (LOYOLA), 48.50

500-yard freestyle

1. Smith (MCDONOGH), 4:32.11

2. Verheyen (GILMAN), 4:27.41

3. Reid (LOYOLA), 4:48.15

4. Bitz (MCDONOGH), 4:52.18

5. Brett Legambi (GILMAN), 4:53.57

200-yard freestyle relay

1. MCDONOGH (Merz, Sukeena, Cherches, Matthew Shiels), 1:26.58

2. LOYOLA (Branon, Lindner, Myers, Abe Plimpton), 1:27.17

3. CALVERT HALL (Brennan Ames, Jason Fotch, Garthright, Nozieka), 1:28.07

4. MOUNT ST. JOSEPH (Luke Isayiw, Wallace, Gurri, Conor Moran), 1:28.84

5. GILMAN (Eric Zhang, Bryce Lloyd, Will Gildea, Perry), 1:31.01

100-yard backstroke

1. Clark (LOYOLA), 56.84

2. Nate Sukkeena (MCDONOGH), 57.31

3. Jacob Wallace (MSJ), 58.28

4. Isayiw (MSJ), 59.15

5. Stuart Zhu (MCDONOGH), 59.81

100-yard breaststroke

1. Clark (LOYOLA), 56.84

2. David Sears (SPALDING), 58.88

3. Isayiw (MOUNT ST. JOSEPH), 59.27

4. Nate Sukeena (MCDONOGH), 1:00.20

5. Gabe Moreno (LOYOLA), 1:00.42

400-yard freestyle

1. LOYOLA (Reid, Clark, Branon, Pelton), 3:05.58

2. MCDONOGH (Cherches, Smith, J. Nguyen, Bitz), 3:13.80

3. GILMAN (Zhang, Nathan Hedgecock, Lloyd, Verheyen), 3:16.24

4. SPALDING (DeVito, Jack Humphrey, Max Jones, Michael Venit), 3:20.72

5. MOUNT ST. JOSEPH (Gabe Van Wachter, Giuse Pham, John Tis, Patrick Bauer), 3:33.17