It takes more than a few first-place finishes to build a dynasty.
Senior Bobby Irwin and freshman Ryan Cortes weren’t the fastest swimmers in the pool for Cherry Hill East boys swimming in last Wednesday’s South Jersey Public Group A final against Egg Harbor Township. But they didn’t need to be. They just needed to be faster than swimmers wearing the white Egg Harbor caps.
“We know we can win races,” Irwin said. “We just have to hold on to those second and third places.”
Swimming in the B lane in multiple events for the Cougars, Cortes came up with second-place finishes in the 200-yard freestyle behind teammate Alex Volin and the 100-yard butterfly behind teammate Jackson Brookover. Irwin picked up second-place finishes in the 50- and 100-yard freestyle, finishing just behind the winner and fellow Cherry Hill East senior, Mike Treglia. Those 1-2 finishes by Cherry Hill East helped the Cougars to a 106-64 win over Egg Harbor for the program’s 12th consecutive sectional title, and emphasized the biggest reason the program has become a powerhouse in New Jersey.
“I think our depth is one of the reasons we’re so good,” Irwin said. “We have phenomenal A lane swimmers and relays, but our B lanes and C lanes are amazing. They’re the reason we win meets.”
The Cougars have established a pipeline of talent rivaling any program in the state, thanks to the many top-level clubs around the township as well as the 13 swim clubs in Cherry Hill that give kids an opportunity to get into competitive swimming at a young age.
Even with the graduation of outstanding swimmers from the 2019 team such as Jack Watson, the Cougars haven’t missed a step. Key additions this year included Cortes and fellow freshman James Tao, swimmers who could likely swim in the A lane for most teams in the state but relish the role they play on a talented Cherry Hill East team.
“I knew one of the (Egg Harbor) kids in the 200 free was faster than all of my high school times,” Cortes said about last Wednesday’s meet. “I usually swim much better under pressure in competition. About 10 minutes before the meet starts, I put my hood on and just sit there and be quiet.
“I knew every second place I got, or even a first place, would be much more beneficial than a third place for the points,” he added.
Cortes earned a personal-best time in the 200 freestyle and got a chance to hold “the belt.” A wrestling belt decorated with Cherry Hill East logos, it goes to the swimmer who earns a personal-best time in any event and is one of the many traditions the Cougars have started during their championship run.
“It’s pretty cool,” Cortes said. “It’s pretty exciting when you get the belt. It’s motivation for me.”
Another tradition for Cherry Hill East is to have the entire team bleach their hair for the state semifinals and finals. Irwin said the team’s traditions are huge for bringing together the club swimmers and those who only compete for the high school team.
“We might not all practice together, but when we do things like (the belt), it brings everyone together,” Irwin said. “It’s a brotherhood. It’s not just a team.”
Bridging the gap between club and non-club swimmers is something head coach Joe Cucinotti takes pride in. He believes the team unity has played a big role in the Cougars’ recent run of championships and enjoys talking about his B and C lane swimmers as much as his A lane competitors.
“Every accomplishment is big,” Cucinotti said. “Every celebration isn’t small, because every kid deserves to be recognized. That’s the real celebration of this team; everyone gets recognized when they do their best. That’s what you should be taking away from sports.”
While winning a sectional title is not a new accomplishment for Cherry Hill East, the team has pieced together a season unlike any other in its dominant run. The Cougars have been ranked by NJ.com as the top team in the state for most of the season, having earned the No. 1 spot after defeating Non-Public power Christian Brothers Academy on Dec. 17. They’ve proven worthy of that ranking, scoring 100 or more points in every meet they’ve competed in during the 2019-20 season.
“The midseason rankings aren’t the ones we desire to have,” Cucinotti said. “We want to be at the top at the end of the season. We know we’re not going to be given anything. This was not given to us. This was an earned championship. If we want to be No. 1 statewide, we have to earn it again.”
Cherry Hill East aims to do something it hasn’t done in more than 40 years: win back-to-back state championships. During the Cougars’ 12-year sectional championship run, they have won state titles in 2015, 2017 and 2019. In 2016 and 2018, Cherry Hill East reached the state championship, but fell short of defending its title both times.
As he cradled the sectional championship trophy in his arms, Irwin made sure to savor the moment. But even during the victory celebration, he recognized he and his fellow teammates had the chance to add another page to the history books the following week.
“Seeing all of the captains from previous years lift it, I thought it would be cool to one day do that,” Irwin said of the sectional trophy.
“It’s sweet, it’s awesome — but we’re ready to get something bigger.”