In his 20th year of coaching, Dan Flannery finally got the state title that has eluded him. The Ames High boys swim team won the 2018 State Championship, their first since 1982.
The Little Cyclones were ranked #1 in the state for much of the year and went through the regular season undefeated before losing at the District meet to Ankeny. Going to state is nothing new for this senior heavy team; they’ve been there the last 4 years. But going in with a legitimate chance to take the title is new, and something this team has spent their high school career working toward.
This was the first year that the University of Iowa has hosted the Iowa High School Athletic Association Boys State Swimming Meet at their new pool. This year the meet was held on February 10. Throughout the season, the boys team took on the motto “swim like it’s 1982.” With former Hall of Fame and Ames High coach Mike Wittmer, who led the 1982 Little Cyclones to a state title in attendance, they did just that.
The meet got off to the start that Ames needed. The 200 Yard Medley Relay team of seniors Dalton Lillibridge, Misho Mahrous, Nick Matthews, and junior Ethan Johnson, set a new school record of 1:33.83 as they won the state title in the event. The winning time is currently under All-American Consideration. It got the Little Cyclones out to an early lead, but after the second event, Ames fell behind West Des Moines Valley for much of the meet.
Seniors Soma Szabo and James Bentley got the Little Cyclones points in the 200 Yard Freestyle, as did Mahrous in the 200 Yard Individual Medley. At the first break after 4 events, the Little Cyclones fell to 6th place overall.
Head Coach Dan Flannery said, “We knew that we were stronger in the later events of the meet. After the first event where we were favored, we just needed to get points in some of those races. Little did we know at the time that every point mattered in those events.”
After the break, Lillibridge placed 2nd in the 100 Yard Butterfly, with Mahrous placing 7th, moving the Cyclones back into contention. If the state meet was scored based on District qualifying times and how the events were seeded, the Little Cyclones were predicted to lose by 40 points. “We had to make some moves throughout the meet to put ourselves in contention,” said Assistant Coach Joe Fisher. That move happened in the 500 Yard Freestyle when Szabo, seeded 12th and racing in the second of three heats, placed 5th overall in the event. “It was absolutely incredible what he did from that position, but it was something we knew he was capable of,” said Flannery.
Szabo followed that up with a new school record in the next event, the 200 Yard Freestyle Relay, along with fellow senior teammates Bentley, Matthews, and Philip Ma. They placed 4th with a time of 1:26.21. After 8 events, Ames continued to trail Valley 145 – 158.
Heading into the final three events, the boys knew there was no margin for error. Johnson placed 5th in the 100 Yard Backstroke. In the 100 Breaststroke, Lillibridge earned a runner-up finish lowering his school record time by over a second, while Matthews placed 5th, putting Ames up 8 points going into the final event.
Coach Flannery was certain that Valley would win the final event of the meet, the 400 Yard Freestyle Relay. “I told the boys the truth: if Valley wins the final event, you have to get second place. Anything less than that means that we do not win state.” Many teams put their best relays together for this final event. For Ames, it was four seniors who had been to state every year: Bentley, Szabo, Mahrous, and Lillibridge.
Every leg of the event was contested and it played out the way Flannery predicted. Valley won the event, with Ames taking second place by .19 of a second over 3rd place Ankeny. That fraction of a second gave the Little Cyclones their first state championship by one point. Final team results were Ames 221, West Des Moines Valley 220, with Ankeny and Bettendorf tying for 3rd place with 166.5 points.
The 36 year old drought is over in Ames in the closest Iowa boys state meet since 1957. In 20 years, coach Flannery has been runner up at the boys state meet 4 times (‘01, ‘02, ‘03, ‘09), and placed 3rd once (‘05). “I’ve been a part of a lot of close meets in my career, but this one will go down for the ages. My hat goes off to Valley for the meet they swam, and I’m so proud of the boys this year who worked tirelessly to bring this championship to Ames. They are the ones in the water, and their competitive drive won this state title.”