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Tonawanda boys make a loud splash

During the boys swimming seasons from 1998 to 2002, the pool in Tonawanda High School was all quiet.

It's going to sound a little different Friday evening.

The Tonawanda program has gone from dormant to dominant in the last four years, and at 5 p.m. Friday it will host longtime power East Aurora, which has won an ECIC division title every year since 1970. Both teams will enter the 5 p.m. meet with 9-0 records in ECIC meets.

Tonawanda's boys swimming team folded in 1997 before restarting with the 2002-03 season under coach Jim Balcolm.

"I've been calling it the biggest meet of our lives," said Balcolm. "This is an opportunity where we can beat a dynasty. And what's so exciting about it is doing it with a team which has only been around for four years now."

There were only four members of that first team, one of whom has since moved out of the area. Tim Harroun, Drew Hogenkamp and Randall Snodgrass will be honored Friday during the first senior night for the team - which is now up to 16 members - in nearly a decade. This year's team has been led by the trio of seniors, dominant freshman Wade Weber as well as junior sprinter/diver Vinnie Bartolomeo.

Friday is also alumni night for the program. One might think that alumni might not be connected to a program which drained its pool for four seasons, but when Balcolm organized the first alumni night three years ago, it turned out that a pair of team fathers helped organize a group of about 15. Last year the total approached 30 and this year even more are expected.

As if that weren't motivation enough, this year the Warriors have their coach around. Balcolm is a member of the Air National Guard and he spent six months last year in Iraq. While he was away, the team rallied behind a "Swim for Jim" motto. He's been notified of an overseas assignment that begins March 1.

"They had T-shirts made up, and I sent a flag back from Iraq," said Balcolm, a 1996 Grand Island graduate who swam for the Vikings. "It's amazing how you look forward to the season after you've missed it. It's been everything you could ask for."

Tonawanda will have a home-pool advantage in more than just the expected capacity crowd. The pool has five lanes, which means the meet will be determined by four-lane scoring rather than the six-lane scoring that gives deeper teams a chance to accumulate more points. Tonawanda achieved a landmark win earlier this year when it came from behind at home to beat a larger Eden squad, 52-50.

"I have some friends who planned to visit me from out-of-state, and I told them to come in Feb. 3 because you have to see this," said Balcolm. "If you've never seen a swim meet before, it will give you just an amazing energy and exhilaration. When it's coming down to a 100th of a second it creates a range of emotions. And it happens in 11 events. I had friends at the Eden meet, and they talked about it for days."

East Aurora has 22 swimmers on its roster and has still maintained a top team despite graduating 12 seniors last year. East Aurora beat Eden, 98-90, in a six-lane pool this year.

Tonawanda was in ECIC IV with East Aurora last year, but there's been some confusion as to who is in which division this year. Both coaches aren't sure, and even the ECIC boys swimming chairman didn't know. Going by the enrollment numbers, Tonawanda may be the champion of ECIC III and East Aurora the winner of ECIC IV.

"Regardless, it's a small school and we're really fired up for it," said EA first-year coach Rob Gipe, who swam for the Blue Devils' top-ranked team his senior year of 1990. "It's still a division meet, it's not like it's Orchard Park or Clarence. Our kids are ready for it and I know Tonawanda is fired up for it, too."