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Sidelines: Knights Willets ready to rebound at swimming district, state

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St. Francis senior Roman Willets stands by the school record board which includes his name for the 200-yard freestyle (1:40.06). Willets owns the best time in Ohio in three events this season.

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If this story focused on Roman Willets junior season, well, it wouldn t be very positive.

But shed no tears for Willets, a senior swimmer at St. Francis de Sales. He s busy turning thelemons life dealt him last February into lemonade.

Obviously [last year] was a little disappointing, with losing at districts and having a rocky state meet, Willets admitted. But the month of February taught me a lot about handling adversity, taking the good with the bad. It make me mentally stronger, and I think it has brought us closer together as a team.

Willets frustrating February a year ago began at the district meet, where the Knights amazing string of 42 consecutive titles was ended by St. John s Jesuit.

Our goal every year is to do the best we can do that season, and I thought that s what we did, St. Francis coach Keith Kennedy said. We didn t swim poorly. It was just that the other team was a little bit better than us.

At the district meet [Roman] had an outstanding meet. He wasn t fully shaved and rested [at district], so we expected him to try and win a state event.

So did many others, because Willets entered the state meet with the top time in the 200-yard freestyle and the sixth-best time in the 100 butterfly. But instead it was more disappointment for Willets, who finished eighth in the 200 free and 17th in the 100 fly.

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Roman Willets has signed to continue his swimming career at the University of Michigan. Last year he qualified for the state meet in the 200-yard freestyle and the 100-yard butterfly.

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I think I went into the state meet, after losing districts, saying, What can I do individually for my school? Willets said. A lot of people afterwards told me I swam well, but I knew I fell short of my goal.

I think it has helped me stay motivated for this year. [After the state meet] I didn t even walk through the pool for a week. Then it was my senior year, from that moment forward.

Willets doesn t use the twisted back muscle he suffered late last season as an excuse for his poor performance, something Kennedy said is a sign of the senior s maturity.

There s two different types of kid. There s the one who hits a bump in the road and turns it into a negative, and there s the kid who hits a hurdle and learns from that experience, Kennedy said. We tried to look at it as what did we do, how did we do it, and what can we do better?

I think Roman is on that end he had a great summer, and he has more self-confidence.

Willets said last year s tribulation also has helped him deal with the pressure to perform at his best this year.

I am a lot more relaxed, he said. Not that there s less pressure, but I m just trying to enjoy what I m doing.

Yeah, the swimming s tough. Yeah, the two-a-days and lifting are hard. But every meet I swim at is my last meet there, and I try to approach it as if it s my last meet ever. I try to enjoy every moment, not take anything for granted, and just enjoy the gifts I ve been blessed with.

It also helps that Willets already has signed a national letter of intent to swim at the University of Michigan, one of the top-ranked programs in the country.

Last year I thought I had to have a big year to impress those schools, and I think that was another part [of the pressure], Willets said. When I went to Michigan for my official visit, everything felt great. I clicked with the guys, I love coach [Mike] Bottom and [assistant] coach Josh White.

It was a big relief. All of that work since seventh or eighth grade paid off.

Willets enters this week s sectional as the top-ranked swimmer in Ohio in three events. His top times in the 200 free (1:40.06), the 100 free (45.95) and the 100 backstroke (51.52) qualify him to swim in the U.S. Junior Nationals this summer.

Those top times, and the lessons learned from last year s struggles, will help him deal with the pressure he ll face this year.

When some things don t go as well as I hope they will say, I have a bad practice or a bad meet I realize now that you ll have those every season, Willets said. I ve learned what works or what doesn t. You learn from your experiences.

But Willets also said last year s negative experience won t alter his goals for this February.

My main goal is [for the team] to win districts, Willets said. We had a big summer in training. A lot of guys stepped up and didextra work, and Keith did some extra work in motivating us.

Individually, going after a state title is right up there. But I just want to finish my high school career with no regrets.

Contact John Wagner at:jwagner@theblade.comor 419-724-6481.

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