By MATTHEW De GEORGE
PHILADELPHIA — The Malvern Prep 400 freestyle relay team knew the situation.
The Friars understood that they entered the final event of the Eastern Interscholastic Championships clinging to a six-point margin over Phillips Andover, and that Andover owned the top seed in the culminating relay.
The plan for the foursome of Billy Beard, Zach Maher, CJ Schaffer and Chris Cary was simple: Get to the wall as fast as possible, and let the chips fall where they may.
That's what they did, and the result was exactly what they'd hoped for.
The Friars finished fourth in the final relay in 3 minutes, 8.03 seconds, and despite Andover taking second, it wasn't enough to wrest the third-place cup away from the Friars, Malvern retaining third by a scant two points, 296 to 294.
After last year's second-place finish, it's the second top-three finish at Easterns in program history. And it was assured by a confident performance from two seniors, a sophomore and a freshman.
"When we first got in, we were nervous that we weren't going to be able to do what we wanted to do,' said Cary, one of the seniors and the anchor who got his hand to the wall fractions ahead of fifth-place Deerfield. "And after Billy finished, we started to feel better and get more comfortable. Once CJ dove in, we had a little bit of a lead and we were all ready to go. And after he finished, I knew I had to step it up a little bit. ... After the first lap, I started to feel my 500, and I'm like, I just have to push through it and finish this up and do really well.'
Much of the success in the relay, as in the meet, was furnished by sophomore sensation Beard. After winning the 200 free Friday, he doubled up with a dominant performance in the 100 free, swimming away from the field and winning by just short of a second in an automatic All-American time of 45.09 seconds.
He added a lead-off leg of 45.33 on the relay to put the Friars in second and contributed a couple of chapters to his growing legend.
"Billy is Billy Beard. You tell him to do something, he'll do it to the best of his ability, maybe even better,' was Cary's assessment. "I told him before his 200 free yesterday (Friday) that the other kid said he was going to win easily. And Billy never talked until after the race. He said to himself, ' I'm going to win,' and he went out and won.'
Cary (10th) and Brandon Fronczak (eight) scored points in the 500 free, Shaffer's time of 49.66 was only denied a victory in the 100 back by Andover swimmer Tim Wynter's second meet record of the day, and Aaron Salinas took second in the B final of the 100 breaststroke to notch valuable points.
From there it was all up to the relay. Being underdogs in the event was nothing new to a team that has fought hard all season to replace major contributors like MP Salinas and Paul Stockett from last year's runner-up squad. The ability to hang on — in the relay and to third place — is a testament to how far the program has progressed.
"It's been really special to see,' Cary said. "As a senior, I really love seeing the freshmen step up and be part of the relays and being part of really key situations. Zach Maher is a freshman and he split a 47 in his relay split which is ridiculously special for a kid who's brand new to Malvern's team.'
"I think something about Malvern's program is that the coaches are just really good at getting through to the younger kids,' Schaffer said. "When I was a freshman, I didn't even final in anything. The coaches like Mr. (Paul) Hornsleth, Mr. (Jay) Schiller, take you under their wing and bring you up and you go a lot faster. I think that's what happened this year.'