Buffaloes' relay teams medal at state

GCHS Athletics
Garden City High School's Jeremiah Bunce comes up for a breaath and stroke during a 200-yard IM race in a home swim meet earlier this month.

Four years ago, Garden City High School and USD 457 approved having the boys swimming program return to be part of the Buffaloes’ athletic endeavors.

It had been more than two decades since the boys’ program had existed, dating back further to the mid-to-late 1980s when Brian Post was a record-setting swimmer for the Buffs at the state meet.

Today, with the abbreviated 2020-21 (actually 2021 for the Buffs) season having come to a conclusion on Friday for the Buffaloes at the Class 6A state swimming meet held at the Shawnee Mission Aquatic Center, the coach who re-booted the program in 2017-18 can look back and say “Mission Accomplished.”

That’s because on Friday, the Buffs’ two relay teams – the 200-yard medley and the 400-yard freestyle – came home with medal-winning performances of eighth in the medley (1:42.31) and then a stunning sixth place in the 400-yard freestyle relay with a time of 3:21.22, knocking off 8 seconds from their seed time.

The top 8 finishers in each individual and relay event are awarded medals.

“Friday’s meet was a mix of nerves and excitement,” Watkins said after returning home late Friday night. “We didn’t know what to expect with the new format (no prelims, all timed finals), but it ended up working out in our favor.”

The medley relay team cut a full second off its season best mark in clocking the 1:42.31 as senior Esai Morales took the first leg of the relay in the backstroke, followed by sophomore Kobe Otero in the breaststroke, and then capped off with seniors Connor Cupp in the butterfly and Jeremiah Bunce in the freestyle.

“We went into the meet seeded 11th and cut off 1 second from our all-time best to finish good enough for a spot on the podium,” Watkins said. “It was a big confidence boost for the rest of the day in all of our events. We had been working on relays exchanges daily, and I’m glad they took it seriously. Three teams were disqualified for early take-offs, but our takeoffs were almost flawless.”

With a number of individual competitors finishing among the top 16 (points earned to the 16th place), the Buffs ended the day in 14th place with 64 points, which was in a field of 26 schools. Blue Valley West won with 331 points and Wichita East with a seventh-place finish was the top placing team outside of Shawnee Mission, Blue Valley and Olathe schools.

Sophomore Devin Chappel claimed 14th in the 200-yard freestyle with a time of 1:51.35. Cupp placed 15th in the 100-yard butterfly, bettering his previous best mark by .07 with a time of 55.02. Chappel and Kobe Otero finished 16th and 17th in the 100-yard freestyle with times of 50.42 and 50.44 seconds.

Watkins opted to switch up his lineup for the 200-yard freestyle relay which comes in the middle of the competition. Putting Kaleb Otero in the 200-yard free relay gave Cupp a chance to rest up for the 400-yard free relay later on.

“We went into this meet with a bold strategy for our 400-yard relay,” Watkins explained. “We substituted Kaleb Otero for Connor Cupp in the 200-yard free relay so Connor could swim the 400 free relay instead. The 200 free relay still placed in the top 16 (14th-Bunce, Kaleb Otero, Chappel, Morales time of 1:34.48) and scored points which was more than we hoped for going in.”

Watkins said he was pleased that he switched the lineups as the 400-yard relay team, in the meet’s final event, shocked the field and all the people watching by winning their heat, cutting off 8 seconds in the process, to move into that 6th position and bring home a team medal.

“The entire place was going nuts because of how close the race was, and Kobe was on fire when he anchored with a 49-second 100-free split to out-touch everyone in the heat,” Watkins said. “While I was going crazy on the deck, the crowd went silent. No one expected them to pull off an 8-second cut and place eight places higher than their seed. It was a very memorable moment of the meet.”

In the 100-yard backstroke, Kobe Otero clocked a 57.19 (57.32 seed time) and placed 13th and Cupp placed 18th in the 100-yard breaststroke with a time of 1:03.86 (1:04.78 seed time).

That concluding 400-yard relay team’s splits had Chappel moving at 50.54, Morales in 49.76, Cupp at 51.27 and Kobe Otero at 49.63.

“We have the new format to thank for all our medals and placing,” Watkins said. “In the prelim final meet, B finalist can’t medal in the meet. With the timed final format, anyone in the meet has a chance at placing. The team took this concept and ran with it, out-scoring swimmers seeded in better heats in almost every meet.”

The consistency of the day for the Buffs’ tankers was shown in the fact that all 3 relay teams and nearly every individual scored in the events in which they swam.

“The fact that we have two sophomores that have already tasted the sweetness of state medals should really set the future up for the Buffalo swim program,” Watkins said. “Overall, I was most happy that all 3 of our seniors that competed went home with a state medal.”

The returners for the 2021-22 season will come from sophomores (juniors next year) Kobe Otero and Devin Chappel and now freshman Kaleb Otero.