Knoch senior Braden Zukowski listens to instruction from his Racer-X club coaches during a practice Dec. 30, 2019, at Deer Lakes High School.
Knoch’s Braden Zukowski finished third overall in the boys 100-yard breaststroke at last year’s WPIAL Class AA championships at Pitt’s Trees Pool.
He is the top returner from that race, as both the champion, Belle Vernon’s Robert Spekis, and the runner-up, Greensburg Salem’s William Crites, graduated.
While Zukowski figures to be one of the favorites this season, he said he is not taking anything for granted in his quest for a WPIAL title.
“Everyone, I know, is improving, and the competition is going to be fierce,” said Zukowski, who swam a personal-best 1 minute, 0.14 seconds at WPIALs last March before taking 12th at states (1:00.60).
“There could be someone who switches events or someone new who has a lot of talent and ability. It won’t be easy at all, but it’s a goal of mine to win. I feel I am preparing myself well to be in position to do that. I am just concentrating on being able to swim the best time that I can and not thinking about anyone else right now.”
Zukowski, who also trains and competes with the Racer-X club team, picked up his best time in the 100 breast of the high school season last Thursday in Knoch’s section opener against Shady Side Academy. He won the event with a time of 1:05.40.
He swam his best time in the event since WPIALs and states last year in a loaded field at the Pitt Christmas meet in mid-December. He represented Racer-X and won the C final, placing 17th overall with a time of 1:01.76.
“It was a very good benchmark for me,” Zukowski said. “It was a good test of championship racing for me so early in the season. At that point, I hadn’t been swimming as much full time because of cross country, so it was a relief to know I got some pretty decent times for that part of the season.”
Zukowski said he is leaning toward returning to the 200 individual medley for his day-one individual swim. He placed fifth (2:00.15) in the event at WPIALs last year and 13th at states.
The 50 freestyle, he said, is a candidate, and how he fares in both in upcoming dual meets will determine which one he will swim at WPIALs.
“I am just working my hardest right now in practice and the meets to get a good baseline for where I am in order to get to where I need to be for WPIALs,” Zukowski said. “As the season continues, I can’t slow down knowing how much energy and preparation will be needed for these championship meets.”
Zukowski said he got in some laps in the pool throughout the fall as he also worked towards top finishes at the WPIAL cross country championships. He capped his cross country career with a 23rd in the boys Class AA race at WPIALs and qualified for states.
“I feel if I didn’t swim or run, I wouldn’t be nearly as successful as I have been in either,” he said. “They really go hand in hand with keeping me fit and competitive.”
Zukowski said that as much as he is looking forward to cashing in on his individual goals and expectations, he also is excited about what can be done in the relays.
He was a part of two WPIAL medal-winning relays last year as the 200 medley and 200 free teams each took fourth. Junior Zach Wilson, who also is hoping for big things individually after placing sixth in the 100 backstroke at WPIALs last year, returns in both relays.
Sophomore Caden Traggiai is back in the 200 free relay and will also swim the 200 medley relay. New to the relays are sophomore Nick Ferraro (200 free) and junior Lachlan King (200 medley).
“The relays are really coming together,” Zukowski said. “It’s exciting to see new teammates stepping up their game on both relays after we lost a couple good swimmers from last year. I think we have a good shot at being where we were last year or even better.”
No matter Zukowski’s team roles or goals this season, first-year Knoch coach Shane Frishkorn said he’s pleased with what he’s seen from his senior co-captain.
“Braden’s in great condition and is progressing well with his 100 breast, as well as his other strokes,” Frishkorn said. “He always brings a smile and a great attitude to practices and meets and that really has an impact on his teammates. He’s always working hard on his events, but he makes sure he does what he can to help his teammates as well.”
Michael Love is a Tribune-Review Staff Writer. You can contact Michael by email at [email protected] or via Twitter .
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