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Congratulations to the California State Champions - SRJC Men's Swim Team

SRJC swim glory not to be detoured

Published: Monday, April 30, 2012 at 7:20 p.m.
Last Modified: Monday, April 30, 2012 at 7:20 p.m.

There they stood last Wednesday afternoon, 33 members of SRJC men's and women's swim and dive teams, on the shoulder of Interstate 5, their southbound bus having overheated, chugging up the Grapevine, on their way to the state meet.

The roadside sign up ahead said, “Water, Half-Mile.” Coach Jill McCormick, not one to let life or traffic pass her by, told her troops to gather all their water bottles. They were going to be a team unlike they ever imagined.

They'd fill up the radiator. The bus would go 100 or so feet before blowing its lid. They'll fill up the radiator again and do the dance again and again.

“It took us one hour to go that half-mile,” said Sean Malley, one of the three men's captains.

The 33 had the SRJC insignia and colors on their shirts. It was pretty clear who they were. And it was becoming pretty clear that all the other team buses from all the other Northern California junior colleges weren't stopping for them.

Which led to a line that will go down in SRJC lore, to be told to generations upon generations, told as truth but will be judged as fiction, for its originality and prescience are so memorable in their scope, it had to be uttered by a Hollywood screenwriter.

“Don't help us now,” athletic trainer Jeremy Vandergriff said to no one in particular, “and don't help us later carry our (state) trophy!”

Nothing quite has the unique flavor of causing doubt and nervousness in coaches and athletes alike than the sudden, unsettling appearance of what is perceived to be a bad omen. And as omens go, this one was a gem. A busted bus carrying the odds-on men's favorite on the way to the most important meet of the year, a bus with more layers of smell to it than a peeled onion.

Pictures of the disabled bus immediately hit Facebook, and McCormick began getting the expected responses: This is not a bad omen, Jill. Honest.

That was last Wednesday. On Sunday afternoon, the day after state meet, safely back in Sonoma County, McCormick sat alongside SRJC's pool, alone, in her thoughts, trying to capture the enormity of what just happened.

The SRJC men hadn't just won state, they dominated, rolled, blew everyone away. In 90 minutes, they got the bus back on the I-5 and four days later had a meet that will get as much Facebook love as Vandergriff's let-'em-eat-cake line.

“The Orange Coast coach told me that this team was better than the Orange Coast team that won in 2009,” McCormick said.

That would be the Orange Coast men's team judged by many to be the best ever to compete in the California Community College Athletic Association state meet. Until now. It was such a compelling performance that Friday night, after the second day of completion and before the third, assistant coach Tyler Denize and McCormick computed that the Bear Cubs would win state by a point if they didn't score in any of Saturday's events even if Palomar, the second-place team, won every one.

As it turned out, Palomar came up 194 points short.

For McCormick and her troops, a moment etched forever were the seconds that Nolan Stimple was waiting for Trent Williams to come to him so he could swim the final leg of the 200 medley relay.

“Everything slowed down,” said Stimple, who prepped at Piner. “I was so calm, relaxed. I saw Trent and he was moving so slow, even though he wasn't.”

Off to the side, McCormick was studying Stimple. The Bear Cubs had something going in this race. They wanted it to be the exclamation point to their meet. Malley, John Bing and Williams swam sensational legs. They wanted to crack 1:30. It would be a state record. But Stimple would have to swim as perfect as his three brothers.

“To see Nolan up there on the blocks, so calm, so peaceful,” McCormick said, “it couldn't have been better.”

So when Stimple launched himself into the pool, McCormick felt “this inside explosion” within her. The meet had long been theirs. But this, knowing any athlete performs best when relaxed ...

“That 200 medley relay was the perfect way to sum up how we dominated the meet,” Malley said.

Stimple did his part. Their time was 1:29.9, a state record in swim-happy California.

Those 602 points, it was like winning a soccer game, 10-0. The momentum they had created after Day1, no one spoke about getting 600 points; they acknowledged later it was like not mentioning a pending no-hitter to a pitcher.

“It would have been easy to let up,” Malley said. “But why not push it?”

This is what SRJC had been dreaming of since its first practice last August. Third at state in 2011, close before, the men's team never a state winner, it made sense to push to exhaustion.

“I watched Orange Coast celebrate last year,” Malley said, “and I never took my eye off them while they celebrated. And before the season began this year, I told Jill that my dream was to throw her in the pool (in celebration of winning state).”

And the dream was no longer a dream. McCormick became the first woman to be named Men's Coach of the Year. Diver Nico Suissa was named Diver of the Year after winning both the 1-meter and 3-meter. Nolan Irwin was named Diving Coach of the Year. The men won four relays, setting a state record in one of them. Alex Holland was named co-Female Swimmer of the Year for winning the 100 individual medley, 200 individual medley and the 100 butterfly. And the women finished in the top 10 for the ninth consecutive year.

All of which leads to SRJC's greatest accomplishment.

Jill McCormick doesn't have to worry about bad omens. There is not such thing, not after this last weekend. Broken-down bus or not, her teams blew that one out of the water.