All last season, Sean Curtis swam on the Hickory Ridge "B" relay teams, waiting almost like an apprentice or understudy for his chance to compete for the "A," or top level, teams.
Knowing that a senior was graduating, Curtis joined a year-round swim program in the summer, hoping the training would get his times down. The extra work paid off.
Curtis, fellow senior Matt Icard and juniors Zack Lambert and Adam Mulchi have become a formidable team in the 200-yard freestyle and 200-yard medley relays. The group is undefeated in six meets this season, and they believe they have a chance of capturing Hickory Ridge's first state championship in any sport.
"Last year, (Curtis) said, 'Next year, that's my spot,'" Hickory Ridge coach Debbie Benfield said. "I said, 'OK, you're going to have to work for it,' and he did. He improved in all four strokes."
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In 2008-09, senior Albert Chang filled a slot on both relays, swimming the butterfly leg in the medley. At the 3A state meet, the Ragin' Bulls finished fifth in the freestyle relay and sixth in the medley relay, placing third and fourth, respectively, in those events at the Western regional meet.
All four swimmers stood out as individuals in the state finals as well. Chang finished eighth in the 200-yard individual medley and 12th in the butterfly.
The underclassmen fared even better. Lambert had the best finish of any of them, placing third in the 100-yard backstroke. He also placed ninth in the butterfly.
Mulchi and Icard were nearly inseparable in their two state championship events. In the 50 freestyle, Mulchi placed fifth with a time of 22.55 seconds and Icard was only 0.22 seconds behind for sixth place. In the 100 freestyle, Mulchi finished 15th and Icard was, again, one spot behind.
Curtis qualified for the regional last year in the butterfly and breaststroke.
So last year, the core of the Ragin' Bulls swim team came together.
Lambert, Chang, Mulchi and Icard, in that order, swam 50-yard legs on the freestyle relay last year. In the medley relay, Lambert took the backstroke, Mulchi had the breaststroke, Chang swam the butterfly and Icard followed up with the freestyle.
Curtis always considered himself stronger in the butterfly and weaker in the freestyle. With Chang graduating, Curtis felt he had an inside track to the relay teams.
At the start of this season, Benfield timed every swimmer in every stroke. She said Curtis always turns in his best times when he's swimming with a relay team.
"I think it's all about chemistry, and, with Sean here, I think that's exactly what we have," said Icard said. "We were all friends, and we all actually spent time together before. He always hypes us up before we swim."
This season, the medley relay team turned in a best of 1:45.55 at a Charlotte Latin meet. They freestyle team posted a 1:35.68 at a meet with Jay M. Robinson at the West Cabarrus YMCA.
Both times are a second or two off of last year's state meet marks, but Benfield expects them to trim time off of both by the end of the season.