Mainland Regional’s Jenna Santora performs a dive during a Cape-Atlantic League diving meet on Thursday in Linwood. Santora won the meet.

Staff photo by Edward Lea

High school divers are hard to find but easy to spot.

Neighbors of Ben Balesteri in the English Creek section of Egg Harbor Township saw him doing crazy jumps on his bicycle or back flips on the front lawn.

Now an Egg Harbor Township High School senior, Balesteri channeled his daredevil instincts into a high school diving career.

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"Once I got into diving, I fell in love with it," Balesteri said. "You have to have (guts) - no fear. That's my favorite thing about the sport."

But athletes like Balesteri are rare. Holy Spirit swimming coach Nick Steffanci calls diving more of an art than a sport.

Starting this year, the Cape-Atlantic League changed the way it treats diving because few local schools feature divers.

Diving is no longer part of swimming dual meets. Instead, local divers now compete in weekly diving meets of their own where they try to earn scores high enough to qualify for the Cape-Atlantic League and state championships.

The CAL championship is Feb. 6 at Egg Harbor Township with the state title on Feb. 26.

Twenty-one divers competed in a diving meet at Mainland Regional on Thursday.

"It's completely different than last year," Mainland junior diver Jenna Santora said.

"It's kind of weird. I'm fine with it either way. I miss watching the swimmers, but it's kind of cool having the divers together."

The move originated with CAL coaches. Diving is not a part of state tournament swimming meets. Local coaches said swimming teams with divers had an unfair advantage over teams without divers.

Teams with divers would be ahead 13-0 even before the meet started.

"If you had three competent divers, you swept the event," Steffanci said. "From a coach's perspective, you loved it when you had divers. When you don't, you were trying to overcome a 13-point deficit. That can be kind of frustrating."

Some local schools don't even have pools big enough to accommodate divers during practice. The elimination of diving also makes swimming dual meets go faster.

It's hard for coaches to turn athletes into good divers. The best high school divers arrive as freshmen with a background in either diving or gymnastics. They are used to twisting and turning in the air.

Steffanci said in contrast to swimming, there aren't many local youth diving clubs.

"I get a lot of people interested in diving," he said, "but they don't have any experience. I can get a decent athlete to be able to bust out a 50 freestyle after a couple of weeks of teaching them how to do it. Diving is unique."

Atlantic City diver Logan McHenry said he likes the new format because he gets to perform 11 dives at the batch meets as opposed to six at dual meets.

But the change has isolated the divers. They are for all intents and purposes their own team apart from swimming. Egg Harbor Township faced St. Augustine Prep on Monday. Balesteri admitted Monday night he didn't even know the final score.

The other negative for the divers is that the new meets don't draw the crowds that swimming dual meets do.

"After I dove - good or bad - my team would go crazy just because I'm from EHT," Balesteri said.

But the new format allows divers to interact with each other. The sport naturally builds camaraderie among the athletes.

"I played football, too, and I hated the other team," Balesteri said with a laugh. "I love being around everyone that dives."

The diving also results in better competition. McHenry and Balesteri can compete against each other every week of the regular season instead of just once at a dual meet.

"I'm diving a lot harder than I would be at a regular dual meet," Balesteri said.

For many, diving is a family sport. McHenry's father, Robert, dove for the University of Miami. Balesteri's brother, Mark, won the CAL title as a senior in 2007. Santora's older sister - Carissa - won the state diving championship as a Mainland senior in 2009.

It might be handed down in the genes because divers say there is an innate feel to their sport.

McHenry said divers must be relaxed but anxious. They often jump straight into the air and land on the board, hoping that propels them higher into the air.

Divers must continually learn new dives to progress. They can smack the board while attempting a new dive, and that hurts more than missing a free throw.

"It really messes up your mind," Santora said of smacking the board. "I had my bruises when I first started, but you get used to it. Now if I smack the board, it doesn't even hurt."

And that is what makes divers special.

Contact Michael McGarry:


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