Cary-Grove co-op's Connor Dolezal has been a part of the past three Fox Valley Conference Invitational championships for the Trojans.
This year, expectations are no different. However, Dolezal already sees a key difference in the team's demeanor at early-season meets and practices.
"This year, everybody knows everybody, and everybody cheers for everybody," Dolezal, a senior, said. "Every swimmer will get right behind the blocks, and they'll just amp you up. You get that extra bit of excitement because you want to see your teammates perform and you want to see them finish that race."
Last season, Dolezal said, there was a line drawn between the varsity and JV team. This year, the 10-time defending FVC champions are embracing a team-centric atmosphere and attitude.
"Our team emphasis has improved greatly from last year," Dolezal said. "I think it's awesome."
Ethan Hare, a 2017 graduate, was the only individual from Cary-Grove to advance to state last year in the 200-yard freestyle, placing 26th of 39 swimmers, and was named 2017 Northwest Herald Boys Swimmer of the Year.
The Trojans also advanced their 200-free relay team of Hare, Kolin Fadden, Omid Babakhani and Cameron Castro, but did not make it past preliminaries and placed 21st.
The Trojans' 400 free relay of team of Dolezal, Fadden, Babakhani and Hare had high hopes going into sectionals, but fell short of the state-qualifying mark with a time of 3:13.61 – barely missing the mark of 3:13.35.
It's that race at the Barrington Sectional that made Cary-Grove shift its focus from individual splits to team goals.
"Last year, the atmosphere was a little bit calmer in the pool," Babakhani said. "This year, there's already a lot of hype. It's getting everybody excited for what's ahead. Last year, we broke it down individually. In my opinion, we put too much emphasis on individual times and splits. That kind of threw us off."
Trojans coach Scott Lattyak said some of the swimmers might have put too much pressure on personal times last season instead of focusing on the ultimate reward – racing at the state meet with your friends and teammates.
"The guys (in the 400 free relay) should have made it," Lattyak said. "All four of those guys (on this season's relay) are already faster right now than at the same time last year, which is very encouraging. They know what they need to do, and they’re working very hard, because they do want it."
The Trojans also return the co-FVC Newcomer of the Year, sophomore Noah Siegmeier, who won the 500 free at last season's conference meet. In all, Cary-Grove finished first in six of 11 events.
Cary-Grove won the FVC Invite with 368 points, followed by Jacobs co-op with 264 and McHenry with 208. Huntley (135) placed fourth, and Woodstock North co-op (121) placed fifth.
Unlike in previous years, the Trojans are preparing for a conference opponent to really push them this year. Jacobs co-op – made up of swimmers from Jacobs, Hampshire and Dundee-Crown – returns a team capable of ending Cary-Grove's decade-long streak.
Led by senior captains Reid Coyle and Elijah Stuart and junior Harold Ogaban, Jacobs co-op is hopeful to catch its conference rivals. The teams have already faced off in a meet this year with the Trojans winning by four points at Rolling Meadows.
Alec Orndahl also returns for Jacobs after earning co-FVC Newcomer of the Year honors. Last year's 200 medley relay of Ogaban, Stuart, Orndahl and Coyle beat Cary-Grove's Siegmeier, Cole Seeger, Peyton Richardson and Cameron Castro at the FVC Meet.
"Our boys know they have to work extra hard if they’re going to stay (FVC) champions," Lattyak said. "We know that (Jacobs) is gunning for us. It's going to be a fun dual meet between us, and conference is going to be a real showdown. It's going to be the first time we’ve been pressed in a while. That's going to make it much more exciting."
The Trojans have added two impact freshmen in Bram Byer, a versatile swimmer who excels at long distances, and Hunter Jackson, who Lattyak called "a phenomenal breaststroker," and is already close to the state qualifying time in the 100 breast.
Whatever happens, the Trojans feel good about their chances of repeating as FVC champions and sending multiple swimmers down state after an offseason of head-clearing and refocusing.
"Pushing each other is what will get us to where we want to be, and we have high expectations for this team," Castro said. "We’re all very close ... so I think that we can only expect to go very far. There's room for improvement all around, and we all support each other. It's gonna be fun."