TOPEKA — Mitchell Bunger was more concerned about how he was going to get out of the pool than he was with looking at the scoreboard.
The Manhattan freshman had just dominated the Centennial League’s boys’ 500-yard freestyle.
The effort left him drained as he clung to the side of the pool, trying to muster the strength to boost himself out of the water. When he did manage to peek at the board, he saw his name with a “1” beside it, along with a number he’d never seen before: 5:00.90. It was his race time, and it was 23.5 seconds faster than his previous seed time.
“I was really tired, so it was like, ‘Oh, cool, that’s a cool race,’” Bunger said. “But as you’re walking back from the pool, it starts settling in and you’re like, ‘Oh, that was a really great race.’”
The time was a personal best for Bunger as well as the fastest time of the race by 3.34 seconds. It also played a major role in Bunger’s placement on the Centennial League first team and Manhattan’s swim team finishing second at the league championships behind Washburn Rural.
“We had a lot of great swims,” MHS coach Alex Brown said. “Some guys stepped up, had best times, and that’s all we really ask.”
The finish was a team-best at the league championships since Brown took over as head coach. It also came despite multiple swimmers battling sickness in the lead-up to the meet.
“We had one kid out sick and several just cleared to practice (Wednesday),” Brown said. “(We’re) not quite at 100%, but you can’t do anything about that.”
Despite the illness hovering around the team, nine MHS swimmers and one diver earned all-league honors.
Bunger and Igor Sheshukov both earned spots on the first team. Sheshukov finished second in the boys 100-yard breaststroke and third in the 100-yard freestyle, while Bunger finished second in the 200-yard freestyle to go along with his victory in the 500-yard freestyle.
Manhattan’s Xander Say, Chris Bedros and Kyle Kramer all made the Centennial League second team, along with diver Zeke Kohl. Chris Chae, Egan Dritz, Payton Mills and Jacob Choi all received honorable mentions nods.
All three MHS relay teams earned podium spots, as well. The 400-yard freestyle relay team finished third behind Washburn Rural and Seaman. The 200-yard freestyle relay and 200-yard medley relay teams both finished second, behind Seaman and Washburn Rural, respectively.
The star of the show, however, was Bunger.
As he climbed out of the pool, teammates gawked at Bunger’s time, pointing out the astounding 23.5 seconds he had shaved off his previous time. They gave him back slaps and high fives, which he gingerly tried to reciprocate.
However, when he returned to the bench, Bunger didn’t appear surprised with his time. For him, the championship was just the first step in his career for the Indians.
“Hopefully I get faster,” Bunger said. “I’m really happy with my development with the Indians and I feel like if I stick with it, I’ll get a lot better.”
His coach echoed his statements, with the freshman’s times already putting him in striking distance of MHS history.
“He can go wherever he wants to,” Brown said. “He’s a hard worker. As he keeps growing and continues to swim, I’d maybe expect some school records in the future.”