Easygoing Bulldog swimmers make history ahead of state

Feb. 23—MAHOMET — Aron Varga, Owen Kearns, Matthew Kirby and Emmett Kearns had just hopped in the water, and Erich O'Donnell was trying to give his Mahomet-Seymour boys' swimmers the game plan for Wednesday afternoon's practice.

He wrote a few drills on the whiteboard at the west end of Unit 4 Pool. When he turned around, his guys were snickering with each other and watching the Champaign Central swimmers wrap up their practice in the couple lanes next to them. O'Donnell implored that they "pay attention" and teased that they all had the attention span of a gnat.

After their warmup, Kirby unsuccessfully tried jumping out of the water to smack the flags hanging a few feet above the surface, and he jokingly suggested to O'Donnell that he spontaneously switch to a different event.

Toward the end of the Bulldogs' practice, Central coach Dave Young was on his way out, and he asked if they'd like any bananas — he had plenty of extras for his team. Kirby, standing atop the starting block in lane one, threw his fists in the air and yelled, "We want bananas!"

His teammates laughed along, doing their own silly antics throughout the practice, and O'Donnell just shook his head.

"He has a lot on his plate," Owen Kearns said of their coach with a laugh and a guilty grin.

They got their work done — O'Donnell said they were actually swimming some of their best times of the year — but it wasn't without having their version of a bit of fun.

You'd never guess those four made M-S history four days prior and were just two days away from competing in the IHSA state prelims, which take place Friday at the FMC Natatorium in Westmont.

"It wouldn't really be fun if we weren't messing around a little bit," Kearns said. "You can't take it too seriously or you'll burn yourself out."

The Bulldogs swam the best meet in program history in last Saturday's sectional at Unit 4 Pool, recording season-best times in every event and setting eight team records. Owen Kearns set records in the 100-, 200- and 500-yard freestyles; Varga now has the fastest 50 freestyle, 100 breaststroke and 200 individual medley; and Kirby and Emmett Kearns joined them in the 200 and 400 freestyle relays.

"That was a little bit of a surprise," O'Donnell said. "I wasn't sure what to expect because we were all over the place going into the sectional meet. Our focus is mainly at sectionals because state is a very fast meet for us. Just getting there is a challenge, so in order to even have the opportunity to get to state, we have to put all of our eggs in the sectional basket."

Owen Kearns' 500 freestyle and Varga's 200 individual medley were good enough to qualify them for state, and the 200 freestyle relay will be the first M-S relay to ever compete at state.

To have that kind of collective performance right before the biggest stage in Illinois high school swimming just shows "We're ready." Not much more to add to Owen Kearns' comment there.

"It's a pretty big deal," Varga said of their feat before going back to his typical lighthearted demeanor. "It makes me feel empowered. We've lost a ton of men along the way. Only us four left, but we're locked in."

M-S finished third at sectionals with just 10 swimmers. In comparison, Central won the sectional meet with more than 30 on its roster.

Having a smaller roster has its disadvantages, but it also allows O'Donnell to be more personal with his athletes. Because there aren't as many to keep track of, he can delve into specifics and develop a stronger connection with the athletes he does have.

"To do what we were able to do with such a small team is a blessing," O'Donnell said. "It's been a lot of fun seeing these guys prosper in that kind of environment. ... They put a lot of work in, and because of the amount of work they put in, it's fun to see them get the fruits of their labor."

Varga said practices leading up to sectionals "were kicking our butts," but it's become more enjoyable, further proving how far the Bulldogs have come since day one of the season.

A lot of their success is thanks to the positive attitude they've consistently shown. Varga and Owen Kearns are the senior leaders of the team, and they've made the most of their final high school season by staying jovial the whole time.

"We don't really have anything to lose," Kearns said with a smile.

Kirby and Emmett Kearns are the rising sophomores, and O'Donnell said they'll be the nucleus of the team for the next two years.

Next on the four history-making Bulldogs' agendas, however, is having one more meet together.

Before laughing their way back to the locker room Wednesday, they each described the feeling of calling themselves state qualifiers in one word.

For Kirby, it was "extraordinary."

For Owen Kearns, "exciting."

Varga said it felt "empowering" yet again.

Emmett Kearns wrapped it up with a simple "awesome."

After flexing for a quick team photo, it was back to business. Well, business for these guys looks a lot like joking around. It's worked so far, so they're going to keep it up. That is, "until coach gets mad at us."