The sport of diving may not be the most high-profile among high school athletics, but it certainly is one of the most successful when it comes to Lawrence High School.
For the second time in four years, the Cardinals won the overall team title at the Mercer County Diving Championships on Jan. 29 at Montgomery High School. And for the second time in three years, Lawrence had the individual champ, as senior Ola Kwasniewski took the crown after also winning it as a sophomore.
Lawrence won three individual medals, as Kwasniewski and junior Kerstyn Johnson finished 1-2 among girls and freshman Tommy Carpinelli was third for the boys.
All three also qualified for the NJSIAA state championships set to take place Feb. 25-26, after The Gazette went to press.
“We won a few years ago with Adam LeCompte on the team,” said Sabrina Lucchesi, who oversees the program, “and then Notre Dame got it for a few years. To have it back again, we’re all really excited about that.”
Kwasniewski added, “It’s really amazing. Our team has really grown since last year. We didn’t have many divers since we lost a couple seniors last year. This year we really stepped up.”
Johnson was excited about both the Cardinals and Kwasniewski’s titles.
“I’m really proud of our team,” she said. “I think this is the first year we’ve had this many frontrunners. I’m definitely happy Ola got first in her senior year, I’m proud of her for that.”
Kwasniewski has finished second, first, second and first during her four seasons. Last year, she was beaten out by good friend Mari Kwak of Hopewell Valley, who was injured and could not compete this year.
“Last year I didn’t do as well as I expected, and I competed against my best friend, she’s a really great diver, and she’s my big rival,” Kwasniewski said. “I really like competing against her because it really challenges me and makes me better as a diver. This year she was injured so she wasn’t able to compete, which saddened me, but it was an opportunity to get first again.”
Kwasniewski took advantage of the opportunity, registering a score of 251.25. It was not her career best, which is a school record of 270.55, but it was enough to win.
“I was kind of disappointed in (the score), but overall I thought I did well,” Kwasniewski said.
The competition consists of six dives, with the six scores added up for the total. Kwasniewski said she does not pay attention to the scores as she goes along.
“I keep focusing on the next dive,” she said. “If I mess up a dive I don’t focus on it I move on to the next one, see what I have to do to get my score higher.”
Asked if she can sense when she is doing well, Kwasniewski said, “Sometimes, but sometimes it comes out a surprise and I’m like, ‘What? Really?’”
So, was this a surprise?
“The first half, I was questioning if I would get first, second or third,” she said. “But by the last dive, I felt like I had it down. My last dive was a back flip one-half twist, and that’s my best dive. I really nailed it in that meet.”
Kwasniewski began diving at age 10 with the Blue Dolphins team at The College of New Jersey. She switched to TNT in Pennsylvania two years ago but returned to the Blue Dolphins to save on the commute.
Her teammate at TNT was Johnson, who began there a scant three years ago.
“I used to be a gymnast, so I kind of stopped gymnastics and transitioned to the pool,” Johnson said. “They’re similar with the flipping aspects; other than that you just learn as you go.”
Much like her teammate, Johnson didn’t chart her progress as the MCT meet went on.
“I like to wait until the end, because I think sometimes if I look at my scores it kind of influence the rest of the meet,” she said. “I like to just wait until the end and focus on the dive instead of the scores.”
The dives produced a score of 233.00, putting her solidly in second place.
“I’m very happy with how I did,” she said. “I’ve been working really hard over the past year. I got a bunch of new dives, and I’ve been working hard at the ones I already had. I think my score was higher than previous years and my dives have been cleaner than other years.”
While the two girls stood above the rest of the field, Carpinelli represented the boys’ team well with his third-place total of 241.45.
“I set the personal goal of wanting to dive well, I wasn’t setting any goals for placement,” he said. “I believe my score was one of my better ones.”
He entered the competition feeling some jitters mixed with excitement.
“Yeah, it was a little of both,” Carpinelli said. “I went in nervous because it was counties and I’m a freshman. But I was also going in there just to have fun. Because I’m a freshman, I knew it was okay if it wasn’t my best meet. So it felt really great because I wasn’t expecting to go in and do well. It was a great experience against great competition.”
The competition will get even tougher in states, but the trio was looking forward to it. Kwasniewski, who finished sixth as a sophomore, hoped to improve on her third-place finish from last year.
“I really hope to win it this year,” she said prior to the meet. “I’m going to keep focusing on my more difficult dives to get them down and get my score higher.”
This marked the third straight year Johnson reached states and, of course, the first time for Carpinelli. Lawrence High diving has indeed returned to the glory days, even if LHS students are unaware of the squad.
“At first I was like ‘How could you not know? It’s called Swimming and Diving,’” Kwasniewski said with a laugh. “They’re like ‘We have a diving team?’ and I’m like, ‘Yeaaahhh.’ But now I’m used to not many people knowing about it.”
Johnson hopes that changes.
“I would like more of the school to know,” she said. “It’s a small sport but it’s growing, so hopefully as it grows it might become more known by other people.”
Lucchesi is doing her part, having grown up with the sport. She was the 2010 county champion diving for Notre Dame and dove for blue Dolphins and the College of New Jersey. While not officially considered a coach, she has overseen the program for the past three seasons.
“Just watching them grow as people and watching them become more confident in themselves as athletes has been a huge, rewarding part of the process of this,” Lucchesi said.
Lucchesi, who is a teacher at Eldridge Park Elementary School, tries to recruit future divers still in their youth.
“I mention it to some of the students in my class,” she said. “I tell them, ‘Hey if you’re on one of the (PASDA) diving teams at Ben Franklin or at LSA (Lawrenceville Swimming Association), maybe Miss Lucchesi can be your diving coach one day in high school.’ I try to get them interested.”
She is encouraged by the fact there are two township-based teams in PASDA, which helps hook them early in life.
“The unique thing that Lawrence has going for it is the summer pool clubs have diving boards and diving teams,” she said. “I think that gets the kids interested at a young age. A lot our divers started off at Ben Franklin or LSA. We’re lucky our town has several different pool clubs that have access to diving boards.”
And they are putting those early experiences to good use once they arrive at LHS.