Swimmers Have Eyes on National Title : It May be Now or Never for Claremont Stags

Times Staff Writer

Don't talk to Tom Harrison, star swimmer for Claremont-Mudd-Scripps College, about the pain of settling for second best.

Harrison and his teammates have gone to the NCAA Division III Swimming and Diving Championships as one of the favorites the last three years, only to finish second to Kenyon of Ohio each time.

Is it any wonder why Harrison, a senior, is looking forward to the championships March 20-22 at Branin Natatorium in Canton, Ohio?

"It's the last chance for me," Harrison said. "To finish in second place three years in a row is a deep disappointment."

Considering the recent past of the Division III championships, history is not on Claremont's side.

Kenyon Has Dominated

After all, Kenyon has been the team of the '80s. The Lords have won every Division III swim title this decade.

To make matters worse for the Stags, Kenyon has many of its top swimmers from last year, including freestyle sprinter Jim Born, considered one of the best freestylers in the nation in any division.

However, Stags Coach Mike Sutton said he can sum up the difference between this year's team and the last three in one word--depth.

"It could be real easy to become monomanic about this meet in terms of outcome versus performance," said Sutton, who has coached the team for seven years. "The one thing I do know is this year it's a fair fight. We both have the same number of athletes competing.

'Stronger Emotionally'

"We'll have 18 competing (the division maximum) and so will they. What that says is the team is better and deeper. When you have 18 kids . . . it makes the whole environment a lot better. You feel a lot stronger emotionally. A high percentage of success in swimming is based on emotions."

That's why Sutton said there is a tingle of anticipation on the Claremont campus, which is not noted for athletic prowess. The school is looking for its first championship in any sport.

Unlike the last three years when Claremont had 12 to 15 swimmers competing against 18 from Kenyon, the Stags feel they have a legitimate shot this time.

"I think you have to say that while we finished second the last three years, Kenyon was just much better," Sutton said. "We were just going in with the expectation of finishing second or third. I don't think you can say that this year."

Maybe that is why Swimming World magazine, regarded as the swimming bible, has ranked the Stags No. 1 going into the championships.

Adding 'Fuel to Fire'

That's a tag that both Sutton and Harrison say they don't want to think about--at least until after the meet.

"How do you pick a team that has finished second the last three years over a team that has won the last six years," Sutton said. "We're not that much better (than Kenyon). In fact, they probably have a few points over us. I think talk like that just adds fuel to their fire."

Harrison also is cautious: "We doped it (the meet) out on paper and I want everyone to know that it's just very close. There are no sure things and we can't go in there acting like we have a lock or anything."

Even with the added depth, Sutton said the performance of one person--Harrison--is critical.

Harrison, 6 feet and 180 pounds, a star at Newport Harbor High, has rewritten Claremont's record book in the individual medleys. The only Claremont swimmer ever to win more than one event in a championship meet, Harrison captured the 200- and 400-meter individual medleys last year. He holds the national Division III records of 1:52 in the 200 and 3:56.6 in the 400.

Could Win 3 Events

Harrison is favored in both events this year and Sutton thinks he could also win the 200-meter butterfly, his best single-stroke event.

Sutton, a swim star for the Stags in the mid-1970s, does not hesitate to call Harrison the school's best swimmer ever.

"In terms of background, use of talent and finesse, he would have to be the best we've had," Sutton said. "He is not the prettiest in terms of technique. But in terms of working hard and maintaining a level of excellence, he's the best."

Winning aside, Sutton said that the presence of a top-caliber swimmer such as Harrison has had other unexpected rewards.

"He has helped me learn how to work with a swimmer who is that good, because we don't get a lot like that to come here," Sutton said. "I think having Tom has also helped some of our other swimmers develop. You can learn a lot by just watching him."

Talented Teammates

But for the Stags to leave Ohio with the crown, Sutton says, they will have to rely on more than Harrison.

Perhaps the second-best swimmer is Nick Bagatelos, whose best events are the 100- and 200-meter breaststrokes and the 200-meter individual medley. Bagatelos, a senior from Sacramento, won the 200 at the nationals last year.

Several other top performers are senior Ned Bush of Las Vegas, who specializes in individual medley events; junior diver Eric Eberhardt of Littleton, Colo., who has finished in the top six in Division III in one- and three- meter diving the last two years, and junior Bob Moore, a former Claremont High standout who specializes in the 100 and 200 backstrokes.

While the Stags might have looked like the Tom Harrison Show three years ago, Sutton says that is no longer the case.

"We've been trying to fill in our depth the last two years and we feel we finally have the depth and quality to compete against them (Kenyon) on an even level. We've got every event covered and most of them with more than one person. When you can score points in bundles, then you have a championship team."

Improved in Freestyles

In previous years, Claremont could be labeled a team that was good in the stroke events but not as strong in freestyles. Sutton believes that has changed.

"We're getting better in the free and they (Kenyon) are improving in the medley."

As for winning the school's first championship, "It would be the fruition of a long-term goal," Sutton said. "When I first got here that was a real motivation--to work and plan and build for a championship.

"As a coach you can work and build for a championship but you can't make it happen."

Harrison says another second-place finish would bring a disappointing ending to his success-filled career at Claremont.

"We know it's there for us," he said. "If we do our best and finish second again, there would still be a letdown, but at least we would know that we did our best."

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