By MATTHEW De GEORGE
LEWISBURG — Thomas McCormick knew he'd have a target on his back as the defending state champion in the 100 breaststroke, knew others would be gunning for him, knew the weight of expectations.
Thursday, he swam like none of that mattered.
The West Chester Henderson senior closed his high school career by defending his title, taking the swim out strong to lead wire-to-wire before hanging on to win in 54.92 seconds at the PIAA Class AAA Championships.
"I feel like coming into this year, people are out to get me,' McCormick said. "I always have that target on my back, a lot of pressure and all that. I just tried to block all that out and swim my own race, and it turned out good.'
McCormick, the third seed from prelims, was out fast, which turned out to be the key. When La Salle's Michael McBryan came charging after McCormick late, the reigning champ had built a wide enough lead to hold him off by a scant five hundredths of a second, McBryan posting a 54.97.
Rustin's Ben Service finished fourth in the event in 56.26 after qualifying sixth from prelims.
The key for McCormick was an understanding of the peculiar and mercurial art that is breaststroke. He admitted to not feeling great in his prelim swim in which he stopped the watch in 56.10, over a half-second behind Cathedral Prep's Rex Riley and eight hundredths slower than McBryan.
The issue, he thought, was that he "overswam' the first 50, spinning his wheels. So his solution was somewhat paradoxical: To take it out slower and more composed, which actually led to a faster swim.
"After prelims, I didn't feel so good with my stroke and all that,' he said. "I knew I could've fixed some of the things coming in, but I didn't think it could've meant a whole second. I didn't expect it. ... It worked, I went out faster and I held on better.'
McCormick had only a split audience on hand for the event, with half of his family out in Geneva, Ohio, to watch his older brother David at the Division II National Championships for West Chester University, where the younger McCormick will attend next year. David finished third in the 400 individual medley Thursday.
That may be Thomas's future soon, but for now, he's enjoying a stellar end to his high school career.
"It means everything,' he said. "That's the swim of my life so far up to this point. It's just surreal."
Morgan Curl is kind of a big deal in Oxford.
At a meet like the PIAA Championships, she's something of an outlier as a freshman from a school not traditionally known for its swimming prowess.
It's not quite the reception she got before she left, when she was paraded through the middle school and lavished with the school district's attention, but she certainly held her own against girls three years her senior.
Curl, who just missed the finals of the 200 individual medley Wednesday, finished 15th in the 500 freestyle Thursday in a time of 5:05.38.
Whatever her time or her placement, Curl is enjoying the moment.
"It's just a lot of fun and I'm just really excited to bring my teammates back next year,' Curl said. "It's the best meet I've ever been to, and everyone here is just so happy to compete.'
That's high praise from Curl, who is experienced on the club scene with Delaware Swim Team. She turned heads at the District One Championships by making it this far and showed she could hack it with the big girls.
"Not only is she a big talent, but she's also an extremely hard worker, extremely driven and focused,' coach Brandon Hargraves said. "The combination of that has gotten her here, and she's just at the beginning of what she can do. She's got a lot farther she can go.'
Curl showed some veteran savvy, responding from Wednesday's disappointment of finishing 21st in the 200 IM in 2:09.68. She responded with a solid prelims swim of 5:04.91 to earn the 14th seed in prelims, and though she slipped a spot in the finals, she was still near her morning time of 5:04.91.
Hargraves sees the growth in the program already in his second year as coach. The buzz created by Curl — her swims and her brief appearances tour — is trickling through the middle school where Hargraves teaches and where swimming accomplishments have been few and far between. And the hope that a new wave of Oxford swimmers could be on the way is palpable.
"Everybody is excited,' he said. "... She's sparked a lot of buzz. Morgan's someone who leads by example. And she's gotten a lot of girls interested. They want to try out and they want to be like her.
To a girl, Conestoga will admit that they didn't have the morning they wanted, on the clock or the heat sheets. But much of that was washed away in a flood of smiles as the Pioneers won the B final of the 400 free relay, downing a school record.
The team of Kaitlin Benjamin, Amber Zimmerman, Grace Wydeven and Abby Mack clocked in at 3:30.87, dominating the B final to take ninth place. In the process, they lowered the school mark from 2012 by over a second.
"I wouldn't have had it any other way,' said Wydeven, who ended her career with a big silver lining. "If we had been in the A final, I don't think we would've had the same motivation. ... It's indescribable. I just realized that this was the last time I would swim with this cap on. And I couldn't have done it with a better moment or with a better group of girls."
Avon Grove diver Carlie Perkins weathered a slow start to diving to finish fifth.
Perkins sat 17th after five dives and seventh after eight, but she rose through the ranks to finish fifth with 423.55 points. That total is lower than the 460.00 notched at the District One Championships.
Perkins finished third among the District One contingent, trailing second-place Corey Johnson of Upper Dublin and third-place Marie Yacopino of North Penn.
Downingtown West's Emily Harris finished seventh in the 100 breast in 1:05.11.