By DAVE O’SULLIVAN
LINWOOD — For the past three years the Mainland Regional boys swimming team has had current senior Destin Lasco as its heavy hitter in the middle of the lineup — that center-lane guy who could hit a 3-run homer every time he stepped to the plate and make it very difficult for anybody to beat the Mustangs. In fact, with Lasco in the lineup, Mainland won three straight Public B state championships, and in the middle of last season ran its winning streak to 51 straight before that run of excellence ended.
But without Lasco — who decided not to compete in high school swimming this winter and instead is focusing on his training for the University of California and a possible Olympic berth in 2022 — the Mustangs have a much different lineup. Now, it’s a scrappy bunch of outside lane swimmers who have lifted Mainland back into the South Jersey Public B championship meet.
Guys such as Evan Falk, Aaron Thompson, Ryan Brown, Zach Vassar, James Bradley and Josh Phillips came up big in support of big guns like the Garbutt brothers, Liam and Cole, as well as Mason Bushay, on Monday afternoon as Mainland took down Shawnee, 93-77, despite scoring just three first-place finishes. The Mustangs advance to Wednesday’s sectional final at 3:30 p.m. at GCIT against local rival Ocean City, which beat seventh-seeded Cherry Hill West, 102-68. Wednesday’s meet will feature the top-seeded and defending champion Mustangs against No. 2 Ocean City.
“Shawnee was a really tough team, one of our toughest meets in a while. We’re taking it one meet at a time. There’s no guarantee, like the other years,” said Mainland senior Liam Garbutt, who was part of two winning relays, the 200 free and 400 free. “We have to work for it, so it’s just one at a time and don’t get too far ahead of ourselves. Right now we’re focused on facing Ocean City on Wednesday. We’ll go up there and see how fast we can swim, and if we win there, we’ll focus on the state semifinals.”
“Like Liam said, nothing is guaranteed this year so we all have to step up a little bit. It looks like Evan is doing that so far. Everyone is working hard and stepping up to the plate. We all knew we had to this year because of not having Destin. But everyone has been impressive,” added Cole Garbutt, Liam’s brother and a junior who scored Mainland’s only individual win, in the 200 IM. “I think everyone keeps the energy up. We never know (if we’re going to win) so we have to go 100 percent all the time.”
The Mustangs (10-2) and Renegades (7-3-1) were neck-and-neck throughout the first seven events, as the score was tied, 31-31, heading into the first break and then tied again, 55-55, with four events remaining. But Mainland was able to pull ahead on the strength of its relays, as Liam Garbutt teamed with Charlie Sher, Brown and Matt Giannantonio to win the 200 free relay, and the Garbutt brothers swam with Bushay and Brown to win the 400 free relay.
The real difference, however, was the swimmers in lane 5, led by Falk, who took second in the 200 free and third in the 400 free, as well as Brown, who scored a third-place finish in the 100 free. Bradley, Giannantonio, Evan Denn and Thompson also racked up a couple of seconds and thirds to help provide the depth the Mustangs needed to advance.
“(Not having Lasco) has been a big change for us, for sure. We also lost about seven other guys, so we have a lighter roster than we’ve had and other guys have had to step up,” Liam Garbutt said. “But the freshmen have done a lot of work, the sophomores and juniors have stepped up and the senior class has taken a leading role in everything.
Added Cole Garbutt, looking ahead to Wednesday’s championship match, “the free events are going to be a challenge, and that Mainland vs. Ocean City rivalry always makes it tough. Everyone who maybe wasn’t in the middle lanes (for us) in years past has been stepping up. It’s really cool to see everyone get their goals, step up and show themselves.”
What’s next: Mainland vs. Ocean City at GCIT on Wednesday at 3:30 p.m. in the South Jersey Public B championship meet.
Contact Dave O’Sullivan: email@example.com; on Twitter @GDsullysays