Two Towns, One Friendly Rivalry in Local Swimming
South Orange won the meet, but the future is bright for Columbia High School swimming and Maplewood as well.
So maybe it's not the Mets hosting the Yankees at Shea. Or the Nets going up against the Knicks at the Garden. But the showdown at South Orange Community Pool Monday night between the Maplewood Makos and the South Orange Dolphins had the feel of a final game in an old fashioned subway series—complete with a seventh inning stretch to wait out a brief thunderstorm.
The win went to South Orange 251-194, but the Makos still ended the season with an impressive 6-2 record.
In a community in which kids from Maplewood and South Orange share classrooms, playgrounds, baseball and softball teams, not to mention countless playdates and sleepovers, the summer of brotherly love stops—almost—at the blocks of the local lap lanes.
The teams of these two towns in the North Jersey Suburban Summer Swim League are separate. But are they equal? Until this season, the Dolphins and Makos swam in different divisions, never testing their mettle in their own back yards. At the end of last season, because of their nearly undefeated record, South Orange was raised from Division 1 to 2, where Maplewood has enjoyed a spot for years. At a post-season scrimmage meet last July between the two teams, South Orange won in an upset.
"I saw an opening," says Claudia Minde, head coach of the Dolphins for their last seven seasons. "We knew it would be a challenge for us this season because of the new division, but now we felt we could contend. Maplewood beat us by 60 points at their pool a couple weeks ago, so we're extra excited about getting that win back tonight," Minde said before the match up. Justin Zelenka, Minde's co-coach, remembers the bad old days when South Orange shared a division with Maplewood nearly a decade ago. "We lost, mostly," said Zelenka at practice Monday morning. "With about 140 swimmers, our team is so much stronger now."
The swimmers themselves were equally pumped. Venkatesh Duvuuri, 18, who's been swimming for South Orange since he was 7 and won first place in men's backstroke and medley relay, also swims with friends from Maplewood during the school year for Columbia High School. Does he have any trouble switching during the summer and competing against those same friends? "Nope. This is the biggest meet of the season, and we have an earlier loss to avenge. We've won all our home meets, and even the away meets have been close."
Nigel Hunter, the captain of Columbia's team who took first place in 15-and-over breast stroke last night, and second in the freestyle, agreed. "In the past I swam a few meets for South Orange during the summer. This is my first time doing it all season. It's even more fun when you know your opponents well."
Younger swimmers had similar motivations. "I have lots of friends in Maplewood, but that loss gives us an extra urge to win, to redeem outselves," says Marie Fagan, 10, who won first place ribbons for backstroke and two relays. "They have a better record than us [6-1 for Maplewood; 2-3 for South Orange going in], so I guess we're the underdog here." Her brother, 8-year-old Evan, a butterflyer, says he wants to win "so we can all jump in the pool at the end!" Other swimmers had higher standards. Sophie Kushen, 11, wouldn't consider it a real win, she said before the meet, "until we beat them by 60, like they beat us." She then broke away to say hi to some friends on the Makos.
Parents, too, could feel the motivation that tougher competition brings. Steve Hayek, whose daughter Gabriella, 9, won first place in butterfly and second place in backstroke for the Dolphins, sensed no ambivalence about the match up. "My daughter doesn't like to lose. She's a competitor. This meet with Maplewood is the real deal." Tricia Benn said her daughter Gracie Jo would be swimming against friends from her soccer team, from girl scouts, even from church. The 10-year-old went on to win her freestyle, breast stroke, and relay races handily.
Over on the other side of the pool, Maplewood swimmers felt just as jazzed about defending their earlier win. Natalie Kleppe, 10, is in her fourth year swimming for the Makos and goes to practice every day. "I'm pretty confident Maplewood will win here. We have the same type of pool, and this is our last meet of the season. I'll be swimming breast stroke," she said.
Perhaps the greatest test of loyalties was experienced by Carly Orpurt, who is not only the coach of the Makos, but head coach of the Columbia team as well. "It's a sort of Catch-22 for me. I know all the older swimmers here, know exactly how they match up against each other. It's hard to split them like this." Orpurt could in fact be heard shouting "Go, Columbia!" from the sidelines during the relays. Like any smart coach, she used the occasion for recruiting opportunities. "I can see from this who the incoming freshmen are for Columbia," Orput said.
As the butterfly competition got underway, thunder could be heard in the distance. It was hard to tell exactly who was ahead at that point. The pool was cleared, and the participants waited out the shower under the awnings. Swimmers in red and black suits shared brownies with swimmers in green and blue suits. When the races resumed, South Orange put in their best performance ever in the relays—five out of seven races won.
In the end it was clear: the entire South Orange-Maplewood community and the future of Columbia High swimming had won.