LONG BEACH — His legs cramping up, Corona del Mar High senior swimmer Michael Liao had enough push to get to the finish line first Friday night at Belmont Plaza in the 100-yard breaststroke.
It was the first time Liao had won the event at the CIF Southern Section Division I finals after finishing third and second the last two years. The time was 56.20 seconds, not as fast as he wanted, but first place is first place.
Liao would trade that race, though, for a team CIF title that the Sea Kings couldn't bring home. They got the three-team race they knew they would, but they missed out on finishing in the winner's circle.
Capistrano Valley set a meet record in the meet-ending 400 free relay, an exclamation point as it defended its championship with 253 points. Loyola was second with 247, and CdM took third with 233 points.
Newport Harbor, boosted by first-place finishes by the 200 free relay team and senior Jack Yeager in the 50 free, took fourth with 138 points.
"We made a run at it," CdM Coach Barry O'Dea said, unable to be too upset after he noted Capo Valley swam "lights out" the entire meet. "[My swimmers] are pretty stoked, because we're not graduating near as many people as everybody else is. We're only graduating two guys off this CIF team [Liao and Blake Terry]. Everyone else is coming back."
The Sea Kings, who had finished fifth at CIF in 2008 and '09, certainly started Friday night's meet off right. They captured the meet-opening 200-yard medley relay, as sophomore Jared Namba (backstroke), Liao (breast), junior John Kim (butterfly) and junior Matt Berry (free) touched in 1 minute, 33.26 seconds. That was just 0.05 seconds off the meet record set by San Marino in 1991.
Capo Valley got second, staying just six points behind early.
Kim (1:50.75) and Garrett Larson (1:50.78) got second and third, respectively, in the 200 individual medley. But they had qualified for finals first and second. Capo Valley's Brock Redondo, who qualified fourth, won the event.
By the time the 50 free was done (1/3 through the meet), CdM was already in third.
"They did amazing," Liao said of Capo Valley. "Every single one of them dropped a ton of time, and they all just moved up in their places. They really deserved to win. That's a phenomenal group of swimmers right there; they put together the perfect meet."
Liao willed his way to the win in that 100 breast, which featured Kim in second (57.18) and Larson in third (57.78).
"Garrett Larson had his best times in all his events today," O'Dea said. "He was huge in this meet."
CdM also took fourth in the 200 free relay, the race won by the Newport Harbor quartet of Yeager, Blake Kelly, Matt Russell and Ikaika Sarme in 1:23.88, lowering their Orange County record mark at Sunset League finals.
CdM lined up for the meet-ending 400 free relay thinking it had a chance to win, and finished third in the race. But with Loyola's nine diving points factored in, O'Dea said his team was already locked into third place before the relay. Still, he had nothing but positives to say about his team, starting with the M.I.T-bound Liao.
"I've been doing this now for 18 years, water polo and swimming, and he has been my favorite," O'Dea said. "I love this kid."
The Sailors, meanwhile, loved that 200 free relay time.
"It was definitely exciting," Russell said. "This was our last race ever. We like to think of ourselves as water polo players who also swim, so it's great when we can take down some club swimmers."
Yeager was also an individual champion, winning the 50 free in a swift 20.93 seconds. He finished eighth in the 100 butterfly.
"I thought I swam pretty well," Yeager said of his 50 free, which he won over Nick Soedel of Marina as well as Joe Ferretti of Los Alamitos, who had both finished ahead of the fourth-place Yeager at league finals. "I knew it was a fast race. I couldn't look around."
Newport placed 11th in the girls' team scores and CdM 13th, but Newport Harbor freshman Casey Duckworth was the local individual girl to qualify for the championship finals in an event. She finished seventh in the 500 free in 4:59.89, just a shade slower than her preliminaries time.
"I thought it was an OK swim," said Duckworth, who had a personal-best of 4:57.01 at the Sunset League finals. "Racing in finals at this kind of meet is really fun. It's kind of like a club meet. I knew a lot of girls in that heat … This year was such a great experience."
Among other championship final swims, Berry took eighth in the 100 free (47.15). The CdM's girls' 200 medley relay (Natalie Wong, Pippa Saunders, Brynne Wong and Margot Money) finished seventh in 1:49.15. They were followed in eighth by Newport (Madison McLaren, Duckworth, Katie Jackson, Kate Klippert), in 1:49.56.
Newport's quartet of Yeager, Kelly, Davey Jorth and Russell finished sixth in the 400 free relay in 3:10.92.
Newport Harbor one-meter diver Clay Pinckney finished fifth in Division I on Thursday, scoring 515.85 points at Fullerton College.
CdM freshman one-meter diver Katherine Meyers finished 10th in Division I with 403.90 points.