Two years removed from the most recent Cherry Bowl swimming tournament after COVID forced cancellation of the 2020 contest, Erlton Swim Club approached the yearly tournament of Cherry Hill clubs with a profound appreciation for being back in the pool.
“I think it was just great to be able to get everyone back in the pool and compete on that level once again,” said Erlton head coach Mike Wilkinson. “After basically having the last year off, it was great to just be able to see everyone’s faces and fast swims and reconnect with the other coaches within the area.”
But Erlton — having won three consecutive Cherry Bowls coming into this year’s tournament and six of the past eight — also entered the year with a target on its back after becoming the unquestioned premier club in Cherry Hill over the past nearly 10 years.
What has ultimately led Erlton to such success in recent years, according to Wilkinson, is a team emphasis on working with its younger and newer kids on the squad each year, such as include Wilkinson’s own children, Riley and Aiden, who both competed in their first Cherry Bowl this year thanks to mentorship from older swimmers on the team.
“Trying to win year after year has become very challenging, because we really do face so many good teams each year,” explained Wilkinson, who is currently in his 22nd year as head coach of the club. “Cherry Bowl is it for Cherry Hill. That’s your big meet and it always means a lot to bring that home in the summer. That’s the goal.
“Our focus has always been helping the younger kids and getting them to be technically sound and enjoying the sport in general, so that they become lifelong swimmers,” the coach added.
That emphasis continues to do the trick: Erlton captured yet another Cherry Bowl title this year, scoring 1,068 points to win its fourth straight title, the seventh in the last nine years. Those points are the most scored by a team since 2008, when Kingston Estates racked up 1086.50.
Old Orchard followed closely behind with 1,041 to finish in second place, while Willowdale scored 785 for third place.
Jack Marble, who competed in his final Cherry Bowl this year with Erlton, said the family atmosphere cultivated by Wilkinson has surely contributed to the team’s year-to-year success.
“It’s definitely a really big family,” Marble noted. “Coach [Wilkinson] always says, ‘Once a gator, always a gator,’ so going through the years, you really get to see the different dynamics in place that help make it successful.
“There’s one man responsible for the success of this swim club, and it’s Mike Wilkinson … “ Marble added. “He’s the closest thing you can get to a real life superhero. Between both the swimming side and coaching side, you can really appreciate the culture he’s built and what he teaches us all in and out of the pool. He’s our secret to success.”
Marble capped off the title run for Erlton by securing a first-place finish in the final event of the day, the Male 15 and over 200 meter free relay, something he hopes will inspire younger swimmers as they grow up through the club.
“It meant everything to be in that spot,” Marble noted. “But I hope it serves as inspiration to the younger swimmers on the team, because I hope they get to experience the same experiences that I have and have as much fun as I have.”
Alexandra Brown, who won the Female 15 and over 50 meter breaststroke, said being able to get back into the Cherry Bowl after last year’s cancellation was beyond exciting, and that Erlton makes it more exciting each and every year.
“It’s just such a special meet and so much fun for everyone involved,” she enthused. “Cherry Bowl is the highlight of our season, so we always go into it prepared and with a good mindset, but also wanting to have fun while we’re there competing.”