The stars have aligned for Eli Tate and Alex Mays in their senior season on the Maryville swim team.
Not only are the Rebels as strong as they have ever been heading into the TISCA state meet this weekend, the longtime powerhouse from Chattanooga — Baylor — graduated the nation’s No. 1 recruit, Trey Freeman.
“We’re expecting big things,” Tate said. “We thought we were going to be pretty good, but we think we have exceeded expectations up to this point.”
Tate and Mays hope to capitalize on this rare window of opportunity and cap their high school careers in historic fashion. A state championship for Maryville would not only be a program first, it would mark the first time in 13 years a team that isn’t Baylor has won the joint title (girls and boys scores combined).
Maryville will be represented by 22 swimmers and three divers at the championship, which will span Friday and Saturday at the Tracy Caulkins Centennial Sportsplex in Nashville.
“That would be insane,” Mays said. “I can’t even imagine how excited I would be.”
That’s because, in short, beating Baylor is a big deal. Baylor has long been considered the top swimming program in Tennessee and one of the top high school programs in the United States. Its reputation attracts swimmers from across the country and even other countries.
Freeman, who played a major role in its recent success, now swims for Florida. He is one of many Baylor swimmers to go on to compete at the Division I level.
Prime Aquatics coach Carl Jones, who coaches 80 percent of Maryville High School’s swimmers year-round, said the biggest difference between Maryville’s program from two years ago is that, now, the Rebels “actually believe they can beat Baylor.”
“Even last year when I was planting the seed of, ‘Hey, you have the opportunity to take down the Baylor powerhouse swimming program,’ they still didn’t necessarily believe it,” said Jones, who also swam for Tennessee. “It’s hard to believe when there’s a program you compete against that gets to recruit kids from all across the country and across the globe.”
The Rebels got a confidence boost last season when they won Knox-area Interscholastic Swim League (KISL) city meet and had nine swimmers qualify for the state championship. There, Maryville finished in a distant second in the combined scores — a program-best. Baylor won the joint title by 387.5 points.
Still, Mays said Maryville’s runner-up status came as a pleasant surprise.
“I think that was the first time we were like, ‘Man, we could actually have something really special here,” Mays said.
The Rebels picked up right where they left off. Two weeks ago, Maryville defended its city title by placing first with 810 points — well ahead of the runner-up Hardin Valley (471 points).
They also broke five meet records, including four relays. Mays finished the 100-yard backstroke in 49.83 seconds, besting the previous record of 50.1 set in 2013 by Bearden’s Evan Pinion.
The relay records broken by Maryville included the girls 200 medley relay in 1:47.93 (Amy Van Son, Emily Pye, Kelly Wetteland and Gracie Bellah), the boys 200 medley relay in 1:34.05 (Mays, Tate, Noah Salcido, Jackson Scott), the girls 200 freestyle relay in 1:38.06 (Gracie Bellah, Pye, Anne Lauren Bellah, Julia Burroughs), and the boys 400 freestyle relay in 3:09.52 (Mays, Tate, Salcido, Scott).
“One of the things I said after the city meet is, ‘You don’t win a state championship without thinking that you can,’” Jones said. “So everyone kind of caught onto that, and it has snowballed. I think everyone is excited to at least give it a shot.”
Maryville head coach Jenna Johnson said the girls team is poised to place among the top three, with Harpeth Hall of Nashville and Baylor in the mix. A five-time defending state champion, Harpeth Hall is the heavy favorite to win. That means, in order for the Rebels to win the joint title, the Maryville boys would most likely have to place first ahead of Baylor.
It’s a real possibility, but it’s far from a sure thing. Jones said the Rebels are still roughly 40-point underdogs, meaning Maryville swimmers across the board would have to perform better than projected.
“If everyone can do that and contribute, they’re going to have a really good probability of winning,” Jones said. “These kids know they may never have another opportunity to beat Baylor.”