With less than 15 yards in the race, the two swimmers battled for the slightest lead. Each was relentless, not permitting their opponent the narrowest margin. As the racers prepared to touch the wall, it was impossible to tell who would win. Belen Jesuit sprinter Julian Ballestas had no idea who won the 200 freestyle. Looking up from the water, Ballestas eagerly scanned the giant scoreboard. Instantly, the scoreboard showed Ballestas had lost the region 4-2A title by five one-hundredths of a second.
“I know I can do a lot better,” he said.
Ballestas’ All-American Consideration time of 1:40.87 was still fast enough to earn him a second seed in the 2012 FHSAA final in Orlando. The state meet — which starts Thursday and runs through Saturday — features some of the top swimming talent in Florida, including a contingent of Dade County swimmers eager to earn spots on the podium.
Ballestas will have a chance to avenge his 200 free loss on Thursday. The senior will contend for two individual titles and two relays. Ballestas hopes with added rest and attention paid to technique, he can match his personal-best 1:39.10 in the 200 free. In the 100 free, an event Ballestas won as a sophomore, his All-American Consideration time of 0:46.17 was also good enough for a second seed.
Belen coach Kirk Peppas is confident Ballestas has the talent needed to win both races, but admits the senior needs to remain focused.
Last season, Ballestas — a Michigan commitment — came close to winning the state title in the 200 free but was out touched at the wall. Peppas has spent a large part of the season helping Ballestas learn how to better “finish” races.
Aside from Ballestas, several other Belen swimmers are also high seeds in their events. Junior Boleck De Pawlikowski is seeded fifth in the 100 back and seventh in the 500 free. De Pawlikowski won the 100 back in the regional final with a time of 0:52.70, but slipped to fifth in the 500 free. Senior Jose Alvarez is seeded fifth in the 100 fly.
In the team competition, Ballestas, Alvarez, De Pawlikowski and Ryan Guso will be instrumental in Belen’s hopes of winning another title. After a five-year championship streak, the Wolverines failed to capture the boys’ state championship trophy last season. Among contending teams, Belen has more than a fair chance at winning another title. The Wolverines have all three of their relays seeded first, with their 400 free relay close to three seconds faster than the second seed.
Since the start of the season, Peppas has made it a point to emphasize the importance of Belen winning the 400 relay. Peppas has some of his fastest sprinters competing in the event. In last week’s region 4-2A final, the Wolverines had a season-low 3:13.36 in the race, several seconds slower than last year’s winning time of 3:09.58.
“This team has been through a lot not winning states last year,” Ballestas said. “I feel like we are kind of hungry for another state championship title. We have four senior going to states. We want to get the feel of winning again.”