As its march toward the CIF finals continues, the Crescenta Valley High boys' swimming team enters Friday's CIF Southern Section Division II preliminaries on the heels of obliterating the Pacific League record book at the league championship meet May 5.
Sophomore Harrison Thai either broke or had a hand in breaking three of the seven marks the team set that day at Burbank High, and he says the Falcons are just getting started.
"We just wanted to see how fast we could go," says Thai, who, along with sophomore Young Tae Seo and junior Louis Wojciechowski, comprises the core of perhaps the deepest and most talent-laden squad the history-rich Falcons program has ever had. "There were some pretty impressive times, but I know Young Tae and Louis could go way faster than that and I'm confident I could drop a little more, too.
"It feels good going this fast and we're pretty confident going into CIF."
Since arriving on campus as a freshman last year, Thai has been recognized as the kind of marquee athlete that could ultimately propel the Falcons to their first CIF title in over 11 years, based largely on his reputation as a top-level youth swimmer with the Crescenta-Canada YMCA club program. He foreshadowed that promise with a breakout performance at the 2010 Division II finals at Belmont Plaza pool in Long Beach, where Crescenta Valley finished runner-up behind Oaks Christian.
He was third in the 100-yard backstroke in 51.73 seconds and came .19 seconds away from a win in the 100 breaststroke with his time of 58.29. But those swims were key in pushing the Falcons into second place and good enough to qualify him for the Masters Meet in both events.
"Last year it was a completely different feeling, it was different from anything I've ever felt," Thai says of making his CIF debut. "I was really, really focused, more than I ever have before. Everything came together, it felt great. Hopefully I can repeat the success that I had last year."
For some, such a postseason might qualify as the pinnacle of a high school career. From Thai's point of view, it's a nice beginning.
The No. 1 seed in the 200-individual medley and the 100 backstroke, Thai is looking to take the next step and become a CIF champion this year, while also providing a spark for some of the Falcons' top-seeded relays. And, who knows what other surprises could be in store?
"Honestly, I think he can break the [Division II] record for the 100 backstroke," Wojciechowski says.
Things are set up to give Thai a less arduous path to success this season, as his individual events are well-spaced over the course of the meet, as opposed to last season, when he went back to back in the 100 backstroke and 100 breaststroke before coming right back to swim a leg of the 400-freestyle relay in the very next event.
"For a freshman that's very, very tough," Crescenta Valley boys' Coach Jan Sakonju says. "We had a swimmer, James Martin, who went on to have a four-year career swimming for USC, and he didn't attempt to do that until his junior or senior year. Harrison's got that natural talent, though, that he can get in there and, because of his ability, he's able to, even being tired, still go in there and swim a top swim.
"Although he did extremely well, we want to take some of the pressure off him since we have the flexibility with guys on the team that we can move him to a different event."
Thai says he was up to the challenge of closing the CIF finals with three straight events last year, but acknowledges the ambitious undertaking did affect his personal outcome.
"That was pretty difficult, but last year I did it throughout the entire high school season, so I kind of knew what to expect," Thai said. "That helped a lot, but when it came down to CIF, that was pretty hard.
"I feel like it might have affected my 100 breaststroke. It was a pretty close race. I felt like if I had had a little more time [between races] I could have [won], but the past is the past."
The backstroke and breaststroke are Thai's signature events, but this year he will have a chance to further display his versatility in the individual medley. It's one of six events he gained a CIF-qualifying mark in over the course of the season and, having also qualified in the 100 butterfly and 100 freestyle and 200 freestyle, Thai has essentially qualified in each component of the IM as separate events, as well.
"We can just switch up our order in the 200-medley relay however we want," Wojciechowski says. "He's flexible, so he can swim whatever we need."
Thai's ability to swim virtually any stroke at a premier level has been on display all season and was a significant factor in the Falcons' unblemished 9-0 regular-season dual-meet record.
"There's been a couple meets where perhaps someone's sick or unavailable to swim at the meet and [it's great] to be able to look at the strengths of another team and know you can put Harrison and match him up with them in pretty much any race and he's going to take on that challenge and compete and do well," Sakonju says. "He's always kind of comes through in those big meets of beating their top guns.
"He's willing to do whatever needs to be done in order to help us win. Because of that versatility, when we discuss should he swim this or that, he's willing to focus on whatever event is going to help the team do better. If that means swimming in the same event as Young Tae, he's going to do that or if he needs to move into another event. Every kid has his favorite event, but he's not like a prima donna saying, 'No, I'm only going to do this.'"
The season so far culminated in a glorious league final meet that saw the Falcons clinch their 19th straight league crown outright. Thai set new league records in the 200-individual medley in 1:51.92 and the 100 backstroke in 51.16, which was also a new school record. His win in the 200-freestyle relay in 1:26.19 along with Wojciechowski, Seo and Josh Chi also broke one of the longest-standing records in the league.
"We talked about it and we were looking through the records before the meet and we knew that we had a chance to do something special because this is one of the best teams we've ever had," Thai says. "Breaking seven records, we kind of had it in mind, but to see it actually come true, it's pretty awesome.
"It's just nice to leave a mark after all the hard work you've put in training two or three hours every day, to know that you're one of the best that has ever gone through the league or the school."
While enamored by the lure of personal records, Thai remains team-oriented in his pursuit of success. With not one or two, but three legitimate aces on the Falcons' roster, there's still been enough spotlight to go around.
Thai says the glut of star power the Falcons boast makes the team stronger not only in competition but internally, as well.
"I think it's great when you have one person that you can put in any race, but we have three," Thai says. "I think that really brings a lot to our team and makes it really difficult for the other teams to be up against such a versatile team.
"It's kind of funny to see them at club meets and think of them not as teammates. I think we get along pretty well. They all participate and put in 110%. …I would say it's more like encouraging each other [than competing]."