EWING TOWNSHIP –- Derek Kneisel, of the Mainland Regional High School swimming team, swallowed water just before the last lap of the 100-yard butterfly Sunday night.
He couldn’t take his normal breaths during the race.
But nothing was going to slow Kneisel or the rest of the Mustangs.
Kneisel overcame those troubles to lead Mainland to a one-two-three, 100-butterfly sweep that propelled the Mustangs to the program’s first state title in 13 years. Mainland beat Scotch Plains-Fanwood 99-71 to win the state Public B championship at The College of New Jersey.
“These things only happen in the movies,” Kneisel said. “I never thought a team of mine would even be going to a state final. We came this far, and it’s just unbelievable we won it. It hasn’t hit me yet.”
Mainland (15-0) won 10 of the 11 events.
Kneisel also finished first in the 100 backstroke. Brian McGroarty won the 200 individual medley and 500 freestyle. Justin Liu swept the 50 and 100 freestyles. Joey Rogers set the tone for the meet with a victory in the first individual event -– the 200 freestyle.
The Mustangs' 200 freestyle relay team of Glenn Lasco, Liu, Mike Juliano and James Gallagher won in a school record 1 minute, 28.09 seconds.
“Watching these kids swim so fast is amazing,” Mainland coach Brian Booth said.
Mainland fans packed the gallery above the pool at The College of New Jersey. Some students painted their faces the school colors of green and white.
“Normal swim meets don’t get many people,” McGroarty said. “It’s great to see the school make the drive.”
Mainland was facing a Scotch Plains-Fanwood team that had beaten the Mustangs 104-66 in last year’s state semifinal.
“The whole way up here we were thinking about every single scenario for the meet,” McGroarty said. We were thinking how it would break down and what the scores could be.”
The Mustangs never trailed Sunday.
Rogers just edged Josh Cohen of Scotch Plains in the 200 freestyle. Rogers touched the wall in a personal-best 1:41.8 seconds. Cohen finished in 1:42.15.
Rogers trailed at the start of the final lap.
“I knew going in it was going to be a tough race,” Rogers said. “But I knew if I was with (Cohen) in the final 50 (yards) I could get him. It definitely got is started. People weren’t expecting that win. It got us hyped for the meet.”
Rogers won the race despite swimming a leg in the event before –- the 200 medley relay.
“For him to go back-to-back like that propelled everyone,” Booth said. “It said ‘We’re here and we’re ready to swim fast.’ ”
The sweep in the 100 butterfly turned a four-point Mainland lead into a 14-point advantage. Kneisel won in 53.90 despite swallowing water that impacted his breathing. Rogers finished second and Mustangs freshman Eric Truong third.
“I thought I was going to die,” Kneisel said with a laugh. “I couldn’t believe I got first place.”
Booth jumped in the air with his arms over his head when he saw the 100 butterfly results on the scoreboard.
“I was ecstatic,” Booth said.
Mainland just kept swimming faster from there.
Liu and Lasco finished first and second, respectively, in the next event, the 100 freestyle.
McGroarty turned in the meet’s most outstanding performance when he easily won the 500 freestyle in a personal-best and school record 4:35.19.
The Mustangs posed for pictures with the state championship trophy. Booth put his arms around the team’s seniors, and they jumped together into the pool in celebration.
Mainland traditionally fields a strong swimming team, but this season is one to be remembered.
In addition to being undefeated state champions, the Mustangs won their first Cape-Atlantic League American Conference title since 2010. They beat St. Augustine Prep 102-68 on Jan. 11 — the first time in 13 years a CAL team had beaten the Hermits.
Mainland broke 21 school records.
“It’s our dream season,” Booth said.
At the College of New Jersey, yards
200 medley relay – Mainland (Derek Kneisel, Brian McGroarty, Joey Rogers, Justin Liu) 1:35.16; 200 freestyle – Rogers ML 1:41.81; 200 individual medley – McGroarty ML 1:50.95; 500 freestyle – Liu ML 21.47; 100 butterfly – Kneisel ML 53.90; 100 freestyle – Liu ML 47; 500 freestyle – McGroarty ML 4:35.13; 200 freestyle relay – Mainland (Glenn Lasco, Mike Juliano, James Gallagher and Liu) 1:28.09; 100 backstroke – Kneisel ML 52.98; 100 breaststroke – Chris Bondarowicz SP 57.08; 400 freestyle relay – Mainland (McGroarty, Brett Clauhs, Lasco, Rogers) 3:13.42
Records – Mainland Regional 15-0; Scotch Plains-Fanwood 14-2-1