By: Twumasi Duah-Mensah
October 2017. Much buzz had already been generated by an undefeated football team and an electrifying soccer team. Great heights had already been reached in the short history of Heritage High School. Something, however, was missing in the trophy case.
December 2017. One meet into the new season, and the new Heritage diving team already had a diver take first place.
January 2018. The team went on to win a conference championship in just the first season.
February 2018. The season is over. The same diver who took first at the first meet qualified for the North Carolina State Championship and finished 13th at the meet. He, along with the rest of the band of legends, marked a new era in Wake County North Carolina high school sports.
But how did it all start? Where will it go? The Herald wanted to find out.
The diving team started when two players saw that there was a plaque in the trophy case for one-meter diving with no name. They asked if there was a diving team, and upon finding out that there was not, they decided to create one. Three of the four divers are seniors and agreed that it would be enjoyable to try something new.
The team consisted of four players: Ryan Best, Dominic Manzo, Nick Mruk, and Gabe Thomas. Coach Priscilla Overton is the director of the program. Coach Chris Fehling assists the team at school, while Coach Dick Wesendunk teaches the players dives at practices. Manzo’s father also coaches the team and judges at meets.
The boys do multiple acrobatic dives at meets, where they earn points by placing (i.e. 1st, 2nd, etc.). The points earned go to the swim team’s total points, which help out with winning a conference championship for the swim team. The advantage of having four players is that their earned points go to the swim team and not the diving team itself. Teams that compete at dive meets generally have 2-10 players.
In non-conference meets, 6 dives are completed per diver, and judges give points based on the quality of the dive. Once all dives are completed, each diver gets his points added up for a total. Whoever gets the most points takes 1st place, the second-highest point earner takes 2nd place, etc. 11 dives are performed at conference meets.
At first, Coach Overton was not convinced of the team’s ability. The quartet would be facing the challenge of learning eleven dives in just two months. “She thought we were under-qualified, but we assured her that we would not let her down,” said Manzo, the diver who placed first at the first meet.
“It’s very unusual for someone to be on a varsity team that has never done the sport before,” said Coach Overton.
No student was convinced that the team would go anywhere. Tyler Roy, a student on the swimming team, explained why. “People say they’re gonna start it every year,” claimed Roy, but then they actually made the team.”
Most dismissed the squad as a joke, since no one on the team had experience besides Manzo. “The swimming team was honestly concerned about us because we could negatively impact their scores,” said Manzo, “but the more we practiced, [the more] they started to believe in us.”
Practice generally started with warm-up dives after carpooling to the arena. Then, the players pick dives they need to work on for the meet and improve upon them.
The first practice of the new team was not easy, as described by Manzo. “Gabe had his front dive down which relieved a little [pressure],” he recalled, “but Nick and Ryan were too intimidated by the advanced divers, which led to many back bruises…as their bodies hit the water.”
“We didn’t realize how painful it would be to land wrong, and we experienced it many times,” said Thomas, who placed third at the first dive meet.
Best, Mruk, and Thomas’ lack of experience drew sneers from advanced divers at the practice arena, but Manzo stood up for his teammates. “They haven’t said a word since,” he claimed.
With more and more practice, the Huskies’ Diving Team developed into…something. But that was it. Something. Nothing that the players knew. Nothing that the coaches knew. Nothing that anyone knew going into the very first meet.
While the first meet was a clear success given the situation, the team was still nervous and stressed early on. Divers from Millbrook and Cardinal Gibbons showed up to test their skills at Carmichael Gym. No one is perfect, no matter their appearance, and Dominic Manzo is proof of that. He forgot his swim suit, making the team late. Just in time, the boys were entered into the meet.
Nick Mruk figured out that he needed to perform a dive he hadn’t done in three weeks. With pressure hurting the spirit of every player, a beacon of light shined upon the team–in came the Heritage Hooligans.
The power of the best student fanbase in the county state cannot be understated. The Huskies came with the most fans at the meet. “We noticed them laughing and recording our foolish dives, and we got a newfound energy and confidence,” said Mruk. “After every dive, we are greeted by the cheers of our peers and Hooligans.”
The energy of the fans brought confidence to the team, leading three of their players to place, including Manzo’s first-place finish.
“We were confused and so was he, but then we freaked out because [we were playing] Gibbons,” said Hooligan Graham Savage, in reference to the Huskies’ rivalry with Cardinal Gibbons High.
Ryan Best did not fare as well, though. On his first attempt, Best was caught up in the energy of the Hooligans, distracted himself, and failed on a front dive. On his second attempt, Best twisted too much on a dive where he was supposed to flip. Divers get two attempts before disqualification (DQ), so Best was DQ’ed. Being a good sport, Best shook it off. “It wasn’t a big deal to me, and I was just having fun,” he said.
Out of 35 divers at the second meet, Manzo placed 6th, Mruk placed 9th, Best placed 10th, and Gabe Thomas placed 11th. As usual, the Hooligans also brought their A-game to create an atmosphere like no other. “We upped our game with some more difficult dives, but we definitely felt more comfortable,” told Manzo.
The diving team was becoming more than something. It was starting to become an icon for the husky spirit. It, however, needed some silverware to back it up.
Weeks passed, and the conference championship meet was near.
Practice, according to diver Ryan Best, was intense. “This was our first time doing 11 dives, and I didn’t know if I could do them without disqualifying,” he said. The fear was understandable, as Best had disqualified in the very first meet.
The coaches played a huge role in improving morale ahead of the meet, as described by Gabe Thomas. “They prepared us for our meets, taught us one dive at a time, and believed in us.”
Going into the meet, the boys went in optimistically, looking to enjoy their time and dive for the experience. Best placed 25th, Thomas placed 24th, and Nick Mruk placed 20th.
Dominic Manzo qualified for the state championship. By just 0.03 points, he placed 8th to clinch the final spot to qualify for states.
“It was an amazing feeling!” exclaimed Manzo in elation. “I [did] high difficulty dives which allowed me to place higher in the finals, although when I heard my name called, I was so shocked!”
In preparation for the state championship, there were quite a few unknowns. “The coaches hadn’t been in this position before, so they didn’t know what to expect,” said Manzo. “I just ate good the week before. I stayed hydrated and prepared for the best.”
Going into the state meet, Manzo had no clue what to expect. “I was very nervous at the beginning and honestly didn’t think I was going to place as well as I did.”
Out of 24 state divers from three different regions across North Carolina, Manzo placed 13th.
“[The Hooligans] cheered me on after each dive and gave me confidence throughout the meet,” said Manzo.
“Shoutout to Hayden Davis for being there every meet,” mentioned Best.
Reflecting upon the season, the bonds of the diving squad made practices all the more merry.
“We’re all really goofy, but I’m the younger kid, so I joke on [the most],” told Mruk. Thomas agrees that there is great chemistry. “We all get along great,” he said. “We are able to joke around and make practice enjoyable. It’s a great group of guys.”
As for the future of the divers, Mruk will be on the team next year. Best will not dive in college, but will make sure to use his abilities when at a pool with a diving board.
Manzo will not dive in college, as he will do lacrosse. “I will miss it greatly and will always have the passion for diving,” said Manzo.
Advice from the players? Mruk believes it’s best not to be afraid to fail. “We all have to start somewhere, and we all have to learn,” he tells us. “Half the fun of diving is learning and getting the satisfaction of nailing the dive you’ve been working on.”
“I just hope that we leave an impact on Heritage High School and that underclassmen realize that this is such an awesome sport,” Manzo thinks. “My advice to future divers is to give 100% commitment.”
See Coach Overton next November about the diving team if you’re interested. There is also the possibility of a girls’ team.
There’s a fire that’s starting to burn in Wake Forest. Its colors? White, silver, and navy blue.