Swimmer/Diver of the Year: Kegan Skelton
CHAMPAIGN -- As any high school diver can attest, theirs is a sport that operates in the shadows.
Want to watch the diving portion of a swimming and diving invitational meet? Better get there early.
While their swim teammates are still at the breakfast table or maybe still asleep divers already are due at the pool.
It's an event segregated by necessity. Diving requires an open, calm pool all to its own, as well as the hours it takes for each entrant to execute 11 dives.
Needless to say, the stands aren't exactly overflowing with spectators when Kegan Skelton and his fellow divers do their morning thing.
"It's happened (that way) all four years," the Centennial senior said. "I just hope I can get some of my close friends out there to come watch me, which I have. ... Not so much the (general) students, (although) it would be nice."
There are those rare times, however, when high school divers emerge from the shadows and enter the spotlight of a pool facility packed with fans.
Their time is the final day of the IHSA state meet, when diving takes a prime-time place in the midst of the swimming schedule. When the 12 finalists sandwiched between the 50-yard freestyle and 100 butterfly climb the ladder and perform their final three dives.
It's a time for divers to rise to the occasion, as Skelton did last month, and become a state champion.
"It's been a goal of mine for so long," the four-time state qualifier and three-time All-Stater said. "And now that it's real, I don't know how to react, honestly. It's been an amazing experience."
The reaction has been, well, pretty amazing, too. Weeks after his title-clinching performance at Winnetka New Trier High School on Feb. 26, Skelton says barely a day passes by that someone doesn't mention his feat and offer congratulations.
"Someone brought it up today. Yesterday. It happens all the time," he said recently.
Here's something else for the echo chamber: For the second year in a row, Skelton is The News-Gazette's choice for All-Area Boys' Swimmer/Diver of the Year.
Becoming the third diver in area history to win a state crown would have been ample reason in itself to select Skelton again. But the Charger veteran preceded his season-ending exclamation point with numerous award-worthy achievements. He became a four-time sectional champion. In his final sectional meet, Skelton broke his own Unit 4 Pool and school records with a score of 540.05. He eclipsed an 8-year-old pool mark at the Urbana Indoor Aquatic Center during the Twin City Championships. He shattered the Charger Invitational record that had stood since 1994 by more than 65 points. And he won his third straight Big 12 Conference crown.
Little wonder Centennial's Don Waybright who previously coached Jake Dorsey (1999) and Chris Schehlein (2003) to state titles said this after Skelton became the school's third state diving champion:
"After today's performance, he's the best diver I've ever had. There's no doubt."
On the slow-starting ride home with Waybright through heavy Chicagoland traffic, the newly-crowned Skelton was kept busy responding to long-distance expressions of congratulation.
"My phone was blowing up with text messages," he said. "I also got a couple calls from some really close friends."
When Skelton walked in the door at home that night, you would have thought it was his birthday. Neighbor Kathy Rhoads, in collaboration with Skelton's younger brother, decorated the house with balloons and had a cake waiting to mark the occasion.
"I was really shocked," the 2011 diving champion said.
More surprises awaited Skelton on the first day of school after his title win. When the senior arrived for math class, he discovered that teacher Tina Kunes had followed Rhoads' lead decorating the classroom to welcome back the state's top diver and presenting Skelton with a cake and a musical greeting card.
The handshakes and pats on the back from students and teachers that day were frequent. So was interest in the first-place medal Skelton proudly wore to school.
"I was so happy," he said. "It was a good day."
This festive reception was, surprisingly, in contrast to the muted response from college diving coaches. As Skelton would soon learn, being an IHSA state champion doesn't guarantee a cascade of scholarship offers. Since winning the title, the small core of schools interested in the Charger hasn't grown.
"Nothing's changed," Skelton said. "It's been a little disappointing. But I understand that diving is not really a big sport, and not a lot of money gets funded into swimming and diving. Especially diving."
As things stand, Skelton has an offer of a partial scholarship from Southern Illinois that would not begin until his sophomore year. He also plans to take official visits to West Virginia and Eastern Michigan, which presumably will lead to offers.
So, why would a diver with Skelton's resume not receive more interest? Bob Groseth, who coached college swimming at four Division I schools for 36 years, says several factors can work against widespread recruiting opportunities for a diver even one of Skelton's capabilities.
Groseth, now in his second year as executive director of the College Swimming Coaches Association of America, first points to the limited amount of scholarship aid. NCAA D-I men's programs are allowed to offer a maximum of 9.9 scholarships for rosters that typically range from 22 to 24 swimmers and divers. However, not all programs are fully funded and must work with fewer scholarships (for Groseth at Northwestern it was 8.0).
Not only do those disparate numbers force head coaches to divide the scholarship pie into partial aid for most recruits, but to make choices on how much to invest in divers versus swimmers.
That choice can be influenced by the relative impact of each on a team's scoring potential, according to Groseth. In championship meets, divers can enter a maximum of three events. But a team's top-tier swimmers might compete in as many as seven events a maximum of three individual events plus the points-rich relays.
"So when you're putting together a team (and weighing) the value of a diver compared to a swimmer of equal ability, the swimmer is more valuable because they can swim relays," Groseth said.
A school's track record in diving also can impact how much aid it will devote to that area. Groseth says the more successful a diving program is, the more inclined the head coach will be to give the assistant in charge of diving a bigger split of the scholarship total.
Coaches might also be leery of committing money to a diver who hasn't proven himself beyond state boundaries, particularly because scoring in diving is subject to human judgment. In Skelton's case, the fact that he has not competed in any national diving meets makes it more difficult to evaluate him when compared to others who have squared off in such events.
"In swimming, you can look at times (to evaluate a prospect)," Groseth said. "But in diving it's hard to compare unless you're going to national meets. And I think a lot of diving coaches go to those national meets."
What they witness there, Groseth says, carries more weight than any state title.
"Even though a (diver) may win a state meet for three years, he might be going to national meets and placing 16th, 17th," he said. "So a diving coach looks at that and says, 'OK, what's his potential at the NCAA level?' And it might not be as good."
However his college destination ultimately plays out, Skelton knows he has work to do to make the transition. Up to this point, his competitive diving experience has been off 1-meter boards because that is the standard for IHSA diving.
But college diving also includes the 3-meter event (and even platform diving, although primarily only at championship meets). This summer, Skelton plans to beat a path to Champaign Country Club's pool, which has a 3-meter board.
"I'm already thinking about my next dives in the summer and what I'm going to put up on three-meter," he said. "We need to get my three-meter list."
It's clear that Skelton is strongly motivated to prove himself on the college boards no matter their height as he previously had to in high school as a newcomer to the sport. Considering what a quick study the Charger was as a prep freshman, when he finished 13th at state, Skelton has reason to believe he can rise to new heights at the next level.
"I'm so pumped," he said. "That's my drive to go to college is the diving. It's going to be a whole new experience."