South Xtra: Bethel Park boys relay team ready to make a splash

HIGH SCHOOL SWIMMING

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Bethel Park relay freestylers Mitch Stahara, Daniel Litwin, Zachary Misak and Erik Brinkhoff are back for another season of Black Hawk swimming.

The four recalled their 2011-12 season experiences as motivators for this campaign.

The team had taken eighth place in the 200-yard freestyle relay event at the March 2012 PIAA swim meet. Litwin, the relay team's second swimmer, had been listening to some hip-hop and trading handshakes prior to the race. But as the finals started, the atmosphere came alive.

"Everybody was excited," he said. "It was finals, it was loud, it was very memorable."

"It's chaos," said Stahara about the race environment. "You don't know who's yelling, but you know your team's rooting for you. You can hear your parents ... it's a really good experience, it really gets you going."

The starter's gun sounded and Misak dove into the pool.

"I wanted to drop time in that race, and the person who leads the relay gets the official time in the event," Misak said, recalling the reason he'd wanted to go first.

With focus on his own lane, Misak swam with the speed he'd practiced all season.

It became Litwin's turn. The rap music he'd been listening to set a rhythm in his mind, and he swam to increase the pace.

"I just go as fast as I possibly can," he said. "I like to concentrate on what I'm going to do in the race. Then, I like to just give it everything I have and not let anything distract me."

Stahara swam the third leg for the Black Hawks, but he looked beyond his own lane for inspiration.

"Occasionally, I glance over at my competitors to push myself a little bit more, to try to get more motivated," he said.

Determined to set up Brinkhoff, Stahara gave it his best effort.

"It was my first time going to states, so I was giving it my absolute all," he recalled.

Brinkhoff took the lane to anchor the race, but wanted to go faster and faster.

"I looked around and saw that we were behind a little bit," he said. "I had to go as fast as I possibly could to get us to place as high as we possibly could."

Brinkhoff noted, however, that he would have taken the same attitude even if he'd noticed Bethel Park was in front.

"Even if we were ahead I would still do it the same way," Brinkhoff said.

As the team placed eighth, the boys recorded a time of 1:27.16 in Kinney Natatorium at Bucknell University. Bethel Park coach Dave Kutrufis noted that it was the state first medal for a Bethel Park relay in quite some time.

"It gives us a little more confidence coming back this year," Kutufis said.

The relay team is versatile; they are also well known within swimming circles for placing third in the 400-yard freestyle relay at last season's WPIAL championships. Also, Brinkhoff placed third in the boys' 100-yard freestyle event the same day.

"He's one of our captains," said Kutrufis. "He does the best 100-yard freestyle ... he has a lot of experience in big races. I like to put him last [in the relay]."

As pleased as Kutrufis was with the four boys last year, they will have high standards to meet this season.

"We do the same things, but as you accomplish one goal you set another." Kutrufis said. "You can't let them be satisfied. We're constantly looking upward."

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