State College freshman Matt Brownstead climbed onto the podium and kept a straight face for a few moments until he looked into the crowd at Bucknell’s Kinney Natatorium on Saturday night.
When he saw his parents, he couldn’t help but smile as he thought about achieving a personal milestone to finish third in the 50-yard freestyle at the PIAA Class 3A Swimming and Diving Championships. Brownstead thought about finishing in less than 21 seconds in the event every day at practice, and it was on his mind again just before he jumped into the water Saturday.
He achieved the feat at the biggest meet of the season, finishing in 20.59 to capture the bronze medal, break the team record he set at the District 6 meet and wow his teammates and coaches again.
“He was the first to go under 21 in school history, and he went comfortably under,” State College coach Ryan Sprang said. “Apparently some of the kids are texting me saying that his swim was the fastest by a freshman in Pennsylvania history.”
Brownstead stole the show for the State College boys’ swimming team on the first day of the state championships, helping the Little Lions to a strong start in the team race. State College earned medals in four events and sits in fifth place with 78 points — North Allegheny leads the field with 179 points — going into Sunday.
The 200 medley relay team of Noah Witt, Ben Gingher, Jordan Hillsley and Brownstead took sixth with a team-record time of 134.20; the 200 freestyle relay team of Gingher, Brownstead, Matt Morris and Tobias Van Dyke placed seventh (1:25.57), and Van Dyke finished seventh in the 200 freestyle (1:40.63) to win medals.
Morris tied for 28th in the 50 free (21.96), Mikey Challis took 26th in the 200 IM (156.93) and Jordan Hillsley finished 31st in the 100 butterfly (53.0) to round out State College’s competitors.
“We’ve had a great year, and our boys are hungry to achieve beyond just the district level so we wanted to be high in the team rankings,” Sprang said. “And we’ve had some really good swims today, and we put ourselves in position to finish up there in the standings.”
But despite the the Little Lions’ overall performance, Brownstead was still the story of the night for State College.
The freshman, who doesn’t turn 15 years old until June, decided to dedicate himself to swimming full-time this year. Growing up, he played basketball, football, tennis, lacrosse and soccer — and he was on the school’s basketball and soccer teams last year.
Swimming was a part-time activity with the Nittany Lion Aquatic Club.
With plans to swim in college, he gave up his other sports.
“I thought it was really time for me to start focusing, trying to get my time down so I can try and get a scholarship to a good school,” Brownstead said.
With three years left in his career, Sprang thinks Brownstead can make more history.
The coach believes the PIAA record of 19.58 set in 2011 and the national high school record of 19.43 set in 2010 are within reach for Brownstead.
“I certainly think so. Absolutely,” Sprang said. “There’s still so many things that he can work on to get better.”
Brownstead said by the time he’s a senior, he wants to cut his time to about 19.2.
On Saturday, his time of 20.59 was good enough for a bronze medal.
“That was crazy,” Gingher said. “I don’t think we were all expecting that, but it definitely just got us more excited and motivated to go faster.”
Sprang said the television broadcast pointed out the historical significance of Brownstead’s time in the 50 free — the fastest by a freshman in state history.
And with more training now that he’s focused on swimming, Sprang is excited about the swimmer’s future. Brownstead hasn’t even started lifting weights yet.
“We kind of thought this year if he’s going to keep getting better, swimming that fast, let’s hold off on that and add that into the program down the road,” Sprang said. “Again, I’m a little hesitant to make predictions because I can run wild with that but needless to say, it could be pretty special.”
Saturday was pretty special, too, as Brownstead finally broke the 21-second mark.
“I had just done it by like half a second so I was really happy,” Brownstead said.
Results for Lady Little Lions
For the State College girls, the 200 freestyle relay team of Meghan Hughes, Sarah Finton, Jodie Challis and Thalia Stout finished 20th (1:44.34). The 200 medley relay team of Ruth Dangelo, Jodie Challis, Grace Dangelo and Abbey Whipple placed 20th (1:53.16), Ruth Dangelo took 29th in the 200 IM (2:12.94), Abbey Whipple finished 28th in the 50 freestyle (24.88), Grace Dangelo placed 29th in the 100 butterfly (1:00.43), and Finton took 30th in the 200 freestyle (2:01.18).