State swim meet will be finale for 4 seniors
When Jeremiah Bunce, Connor Cupp, Esai Morales and Brody Hoff compete Friday in the Class 6A state swimming championships, it will be their final moment to don the Buffaloes’ uniform representing Garden City High School.
It’s been a journey for this group, for sure.
Consider that in the spring of 2017 when they were all 8th graders, GCHS didn’t have a boys swimming program and hadn’t had one since the early 1990s.
When it was decided in the fall of 2018 to implement a new program under the direction of Brian Watkins, nobody could have anticipated where the program would stand four years later, considering it took just a couple of months to hire a coach, get uniforms, schedule meets and final a group of swimmers.
In the brief period of bringing a program up from the ashes into a competitive program, the Buffs have slowly but surely improved from year to year.
It started first in the Western Athletic Conference, where the Buffs splashed their way into the sport with a third-place finish at the league meet. From there, it has all been full speed ahead, as the Buffs have won the last three WAC titles, each season increasing their margin of victory.
There are many components to the success of the Buffs — starting first with the seniors who were here as freshmen — Bunce, Morales, Hoff.
“That first year, we had a bunch of the kids who had never swam competitively or some who hadn’t swam since they were 8 or 9 years old,” said Watkins, who has seen the meteoric rise of his squad.
For Watkins, the early goals were simple — teach the basic fundamentals of the different strokes, trying to identify which swimmers could perform in the respective strokes and then try to put them into events and see how they competed.
“We really didn’t have any set goals that first year,” Watkins said.
Bunce, whose specialty is the freestyle events, recalls not really knowing how the team would perform and also how they would compete.
“Starting my freshman year, it was a new program and people didn’t really expect much from us,” Bunce recalled. “We were swimming 2,000 yards in practice thinking that it was a lot of swimming, and we were not placing well in the WAC. At some point, we got second in a relay and that gave us confidence.”
Morales, who had not been in competitive swimming, didn’t finish his freshman season. But he returned for his sophomore campaign and has been another force in the Buffs’ success.
“I wasn’t ready for that kind of competition and that kind of practices, and I just quit,” Morales said with a bit of chagrin. “But I decided to come back my sophomore year and all of us worked hard, we bonded better as a team, and we just kept getting better and better. Times kept going down.”
Hoff, who wasn’t available at Tuesday’s practice session, has been a stable part of the group throughout his four seasons, Bunce said.
With Bunce, Morales and Hoff forming the nucleus of the team for their sophomore season, the one missing link arrived when Cupp and his family moved to Garden City from nearby Scott City just so he could be on a competitive high school swim team.
“One of the big sacrifices that I had to work through was I wanted to be challenged academically and also swim on a high school team,” said Cupp, who had swam summer competition for many years and knew coach Watkins and Ryan and Jennifer Meng through summer events. “We had a lot of family talks with my parents about doing this and I went from a school of about 200 to one of 2,000.”
Even though the two towns are merely 35-40 minutes apart, they sometimes seem like a world apart.
“Scott City is where everybody knows everybody,” Cupp said. “At Garden City, I was being introduced to new kids every day and I’ve been able to take Honors classes and AP classes. It has turned out to be the best decision I’ve made.”
Perhaps it was Cupp’s move to Garden City that took the Buffs from a program that had not enjoyed much success in its first year of re-emerging from a 25-plus year absence. His arrival has allowed the Buffs to have a full-fledge list of entries for Friday’s state meet.
All 3 relays — 200-yard medley, 200- and 400-yard freestyle — will be entered. The 200-yard free will include Morales, sophomores Devin Chappel and Kobe Otero and Bunce. The 200-yard medley will have Morales (backstroke), Kobe Otero (breaststroke), Cupp (butterfly) and Bunce (freestyle). Tentatively, Watkins will have Chappel, Morales, Cupp and Kobe Otero in the 400-relay.
Bunce said it will be a little bittersweet to see his high school career end this week.
“Just being with a great group has been one of the best experiences,” he said. “We give each other a hard time, but it’s all good-natured.”
His senior season has been marred somewhat by the fact that he had to sit out November practices due to a family member being exposed to COVID-19 and then he tested positive in December and didn’t get released from quarantine until a few days before New Year’s Day.
“Conditioning has been the toughest part for me,” he said. “I still feel like I’m not 100 percent in condition. We’ve worked a lot on starts and turns to try and take a few seconds off here or there.”
His plans after spring graduation include college swimming, and his early interests include Barton Community College in Great Bend (NJCAA) and Adams State University (NCAA Division II) in Alamosa, Colo. He hopes to major in biology.
SENIOR SWIMMERS MAKE BIG SPLASH
Morales, who had left the program midway through his freshman year, but returned, has a distinct view of the program.
“I think there were times early where it was hard for me, and hard for the others, to see that we could have a really good team,” Morales said. “We’ve put in so much hard work to improve and it has been very rewarding to see the progress we’ve made.”
Morales perhaps takes on one of the most difficult strokes in the backstroke, citing that you’re always swimming with your face up and on your back.
“You have to get off to a good start in the first 50 (yards), and your form has to be really good,” Morales said. “If you don’t have that technique then the smallest things make the difference in how to finish the race. I’ve had to learn how to make the turns by flipping back on your stomach and you just have to pay attention.”
Morales said one of the great strengths of the team is that each of the swimmers has their own strokes in which they excel.
“We don’t all swim the same strokes well,” he said. “We’ve just figured out over time who is best at certain ones and divide them up.”
While not settled on a specific school, Morales said he enjoys engineering and doing mechanical things with his hands. He has dreams of going through Naval ROTC and eventually wants to become a Navy Seal. Perhaps it’s fitting then, that his forte has been swimming underwater.
Cupp tried to downplay his importance to the team, but it was apparent that his work ethic upon arrival was an inspiration to the others, and then in 2020 when freshmen Kobe Otero and Chappel arrived, it sparked everyone to an even higher level of dedication.
“The fly is probably my best event, but my favorite is the breaststroke,” he said. “It’s kind of strange that I like the breaststroke better than the fly.”
Cupp recently won two individual events and swam on two winning relays at the WAC Championships and was voted the Outstanding Swimmer of the Year by the league’s coaches.
So it does seem a little strange for him to know that once he’s finished with the state meet on Friday, it will be his final time in the competitive pool.
He will be off to the University of Kansas in the fall where he plans to study bio-chemistry and then go into pre-med.
“It’s been such a really good time here for me,” Cupp said. “Coach has challenged me and my teammates and we’ve all lowered our times.”
Cupp said that in his butterfly event, it has been important to get stronger in the shoulders.
“You have to pull through the water and you need big shoulders to do that,” Cupp said. “I’m breathing every other stroke, so I just try to be consistent throughout the race. That last 50 sometimes you just feel like you’re going to die, but you have to gut it out.”
Watkins had an additional high praise for Bunce, making as much progress improving in the classroom and as a person as he has swimming.
“He missed the state his sophomore year because he was ineligible by our district policy,” Watkins said in recounting a tough moment for the team. “But you know, he came back his junior year and hasn’t missed a beat. He’s done everything in and out of the classroom and in the pool that a coach could want.”
With new formatting in place for the state, there will no prelims to qualify for finals on Day 2. Everything happens in one day with timed finals.
“We only get one crack at each event,” Watkins said. “I’m looking forward to seeing how our kids can rise to the occasion.”