The final race of the New Jersey Public A boys’ swimming championship lasted 3:13.89, but for Cherry Hill East boys’ swimming coach Joseph Cucinotti, it felt like an eternity.
“It was like dog years,” he said.
Cherry Hill East was battling an old nemesis, No. 1 seed and defending champion Westfield. The Cougars hung with Westfield throughout the meet, forcing a winner-take-all matchup in the 400-meter freestyle relay.
When junior Duncan Brookover hit the wall in first place to win the final race by 0.12 seconds, the shortcomings and disappointments of years past were wiped away. The Cougars were able to celebrate their first state championship in 13 years.
Cherry Hill East stunned Westfield on Feb. 21, winning 86–84 to capture the school’s first state title in boys’ swimming since 2002.
“The place really erupted,” Cucinotti said. “It was a sense of accomplishment, a sense of finality.”
Advancing to the state semifinals has been an annual occurrence for the Cougars. Cherry Hill East has won four consecutive South Jersey Public A championships.
However, the state tournament had been the Cougars’ downfall. Cherry Hill East had fallen short the past three years, including suffering two losses to Westfield.
This time, Cucinotti entered the meet with a plan to finally cement a win.
“We knew they had a very good distance freestyle and had a great breaststroke,” he said. “So we weren’t putting our top swimmers in any of those events.”
Cherry Hill East put a focus on the relay events and a few individual events such as the shorter freestyle races in hopes of accruing as many points as possible. The strategy allowed Cherry Hill East to keep pace with Westfield throughout the day.
Strategy alone was not the reason the Cougars were able to win the title. Most of the swimmers had been on last year’s team that lost to Westfield, 103–67 in the 2014 Group A championship. This time, they were determined to reverse the result.
“They were there with a purpose this year. Last year, we were excited to just get there,” Cucinotti said. “The maturation factor was a big thing, We grew into that moment.”
A number of Cherry Hill East’s swimmers came up big during the event. Brookover finished in first place in the 200-meter individual medley and 100-meter backstroke in addition to clinching the freestyle relay win. Junior Pat Gillooly swept both the 50- and 100-meter freestyle events with times near his best of the year. Senior David Rowe also helped the Cougars’ cause with a win in the 100-meter butterfly. Brookover, Gillooly and Rowe also teamed up to help win the 200 medley relay and 200 freestyle relay.
Most of the Cherry Hill East team also swims and trains with their various club teams around the township. Despite the rivalries existing from club to club, Cucinotti said his team is united when they step into the pool as a Cherry Hill East team member.
“They really care about performing for the team and for the high school,” he said. “They get up for these meets, swimming for each other, swimming for their school, swimming for their town.”
A number of Cherry Hill East’s top swimmers will be back next year to defend their title. However, it may be tough to replicate this year’s drama.
“With all the excitement and the adrenaline going, it was a great atmosphere,” Cucinotti said.