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Published: Thursday, 2/12/2009

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

BY JOHN WAGNER
BLADE SPORTS WRITER
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. 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.

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. 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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