COLLEGE PARK — Thomas Johnson senior Robert Xu shook his arms, kicked his feet, took a couple deep breaths and focused.
Xu was about to dive into the pool for the final time of his high school swimming career, and his mission was clear — he wanted to swim fast and make it a great race.
Xu did both of those things. And in the process, he nearly became the only Frederick County swimmer to win a state title on Saturday.
Xu was pretty much even with Damascus’ AJ Navaleza heading into the final stretch of the 100-yard breaststroke. But the Hornets sophomore beat Xu by two hundredths of a second to win with a time of 59.31 in the Class 3A-2A-1A swimming and diving championships at the University of Maryland’s Eppley Natatorium.
Xu’s thrilling race produced one of four second-place finishes by Frederick County swimmers. No one from the county won a title on Saturday. Linganore’s Jessica Buntman won the state diving title on Friday with 413.1 points.
Other county swimmers to place second in the 3A-2A-1A meet were Middletown’s Kathryn Pressly in the 50 freestyle and Oakdale’s 200 medley relay team of Emily Baba, Heather Rogers, Jensen Ritter and Claudia Kulikov. Tuscarora’s Sophia Routzahn was second in the 4A-3A 100 breaststroke earlier on Saturday.
Racing near the end of the day’s second meet, Xu represented his county’s final shot at a state champion. He wasn’t thinking about anything like that as he readied himself for the race, though.
“I just went out there and raced hard. And whatever the outcome was, I would accept it,” Xu said. “I really wanted to hold on. But it was a good race between the two of us.”
Navaleza often finishes stronger than he starts.
“My first 50 wasn’t as fast as I thought it was going to be, but I came back as hard as I could,” Navaleza said.
He needed to do that very thing because Xu had a personal best time of 59.33.
Xu capped off his career by winning his first state medal — medals are awarded to the top three finishers.
“Robert’s had a phenomenal year. It’s one of those finishes,” Patriots coach Adam Frank said. “The kid went low, Robert went high. But .02?”
No shame in that close call, and Frank said the team was happy for Xu. Praising the senior’s leadership, Frank said, “He’s the glue that holds us together.”
Xu’s scholastic swimming career is likely over. He’s heading to Notre Dame, where he plans to study electrical engineering, on an NROTC scholarship.
“That’s it for high school. It’s been a great four years,” Xu said. “I really had a great time with this team. I’m really going to miss it.”
Pressly, on the other hand, is a sophomore who has a couple years with her team.
Of course, she’s already been around the Knights for ages, thanks to having three older brothers who swam at Middletown.
“I was born into swimming,” she said.
A family tradition is getting the Pressly name on Middletown’s record board, and Kathryn’s already done that.
She holds school records for the 200, 50 and 100 freestyles, breaking her own mark in the latter two on Saturday. And next year, she plans to aim for the 100 butterfly.
Knights coach Stacy MacMillan praised Pressly’s competitiveness and goal-setting, traits that surfaced years ago.
“When she came to watch her brothers swim at the high school level, she had eyes on the records, even back then,” the coach said.
Pressly was second in the state 200 free last year. But this season, she was primarily a sprinter after dealing with some breathing issues.
Oakdale’s Baba, Rogers, Kulikov and Ritter also placed third in the 200 free relay. The Bears placed fifth in the girls team standings.
The Walkersville boys team, which placed a county-best fourth in the team standings, got third-place finishes from Michael Flegel in the 100 free and from Noah Wilson, Joseph Pieklo, Kameron Conley and Flegel in the 200 medley relay.
Lions coach Kevin Conley was pleased with his swimmers’ times. This was the last hurrah for Wilson, Flegel and Kameron Conley, who are seniors.
“We’ve had some strong years the last couple of years with those guys,” the coach said.
But Pieklo will return. Aside from participating in the medley relay, he broke the team record in the breaststroke, placing sixth. His mother owns the school’s girls record in that event.
Routzahn concluded a strong freshman season that saw her break two records at the county meet — the 100 breaststroke and 100 free.
As for Buntman, she became just the second Frederick County diver to win a state title. Oakdale’s Melissa Novak was the first in 2017.