New Trier-Evanston: A Rivalry Renewed

Swimming: Illinois High School Swimming Championships Friday Evanston, Illinois 22-FEB-2008 X79648 TK1 CREDIT: Andrew Hancock Swimming: Illinois High School Swimming Championships Friday Evanston, Illinois 22-FEB-2008 X79648 TK1 CREDIT: Andrew Hancock
Photo Courtesy: Andrew Hancock

By Michael J. Stott.

While the Masters may claim to be “an event unlike any other,” Illinois high school swimming has a major all its own. Tomorrow, two venerable suburban Chicago teams square off for local supremacy. In a rivalry that dates to 1918 and has run annually with the exception of 1934 and 1935, New Trier and Evanston will battle for dual meet bragging rights for the 100th time.

The two schools can stake a legitimate claim to the oldest continuous high school rivalry in the nation. Evanston first fielded a team in 1908, New Trier in 1912. Research with NISCA, ISHOF and various sources has failed to unearth a longer standing continuous competition. Even Northeast prep powerhouses like Andover, Exeter and Deerfield fall slightly short.

Evanston, the meet host, has planned an assortment of events including a luncheon and reception to mark the occasion but the real focus will once again be in the pool. New Trier, once known as Indians and now Trevians, holds a 62-36-1 edge over the Wildkits. The fact that New Trier is the reigning Illinois boys state champion (Evanston was 14th) means nothing as the teams gather to do battle.

Recent history has favored the Trevians who have won the last 13 meets and are 16-1-1 since 2001. New Trier has won eight state championships in the period as well as NISCA national public school (2009 – 2012) and Swimming World mythical titles (2007, 2012). Evanston’s last state championships came in 2001 (national public school crown as well) and 2005. Historically New Trier has won 24 boys state crowns had 19 seconds and nine thirds. Evanston has seven titles, nine seconds and 13 thirds to its credit.

Both schools have been a proving ground for college programs and in some cases international recognition. As an example, the Wildkits Dick Hanley was an Olympic silver medalist in Melbourne and 7x NCAA All-American. Butterflyer Fred Schmidt, a world record-holder in the 100 meter fly before entering college, won Olympic gold and bronze in 1964. His Indian teammate Dave Lyons also swam in Tokyo.

In thinking about the competition between Evanston and New Trier, my first thought was about how young we were and how intense it was,” says Schmidt. “In  greater reflection after a long period of time and by thinking of it in hindsight, it made me realize  of how much better swimmers it made each of us from both schools.  In my life I have found that motivation and drive does not always come from inside someone, but often needs the help of a strong rivalry or other outside stimulus to make one work harder than you normally might have. The motivation and intensity of such a rivalry helps everyone to train and prepare that much harder, which in the end not only made all of us better athletes, but better individuals,” says Schmidt, a lawyer, former SEAL team member who opened the capsule after the Apollo 15 splashdown.

I’m not sure our kids really understand how fierce this rivalry once was,” says current Trevian coach Josh Runkle. It’s been a while since Evanston was really good, but they always swim well against us. I really like their coaches and get along with them really well.”

Kevin Auger first became head coach at Evanston in 1996 “when the rivalry was still fierce,” he says. “I downplayed it somewhat in order to focus more on placing at State and I believe New Trier did as well. Mark Onstott, then NT coach, and I became good friends over the next 10-20 years before he retired. Ours was not a bitter rivalry but a rivalry borne of respect and a desire to be the best in the State,” says Auger.

I got there in 1994 and we had not beaten Evanston in a dual meet in six years. It was very much an old school, bitter rivalry,” says Onstott. “I just walked into it and had no idea. In Cedar Rapids, I’d had a rivalry with my Kennedy team against Jefferson, but it was nothing like this. It was an ongoing problem going back to Dave Robertson and Dobbie Burton.”

Before this era of good feelings memories are rife with competitive shenanigans legendary on the North Shore aquatic scene. At no time was the relationship between the two schools more toxic than when Burton (Evanston, 1948-1985) and Robertson (New Trier, 1953-1976) ruled their roosts. Both were former Michigan swimmers under Matt Mann and both loved to win.

From a socioeconomic perspective New Trier, based in more affluent Winnetka, had an advantage. The school’s eight lane, 25 yard indoor pool had six diving boards, two high four low, and spectator seating for 1200. Burton referred to New Trier as “enemy of the north,” says his son Patrick and the pool as the “crystal palace.” In contrast Evanston, until the fall of 1958, swam at the McGaw YMCA, a four lane “tile box,” where Burton effectively trained his athletes by instituting circle swimming.

My father was always swimming upstream against those guys,” says Patrick Burton. Despite a perceived disadvantage, in one 20-year period Evanston finished in the top three at the state meet. As for his father’s relationship with Robertson, “I would characterize it as Bo Schembechler versus Woody Hayes. It had the same feel. Everything between New Trier and Evanston was competitive. My dad was a competitor.”

The lengths to which each would go to win a meet was storybook stuff. One meet at Evanston the Wildkits donned swim fins for the competition. “Robertson, well-schooled in the high school rule book, took exception and began a lengthy filibuster with the meet referee,” says Onstott “while sending his assistant coach back to New Trier for their fins.” Finally, the meet commenced with both teams deciding to swim sans fins.

On another occasion Evanston had swimmers doing running starts on relays. Upon seeing that Robertson instructed a team manager to stand in front of the door from which the Evanston athletes were emerging to quell the fast start. Once an Evanston manager visited New Trier and checked the Indian lineup posted on the team bulletin board. The next year Robertson pinned up a false lineup after instructing his varsity swimmers to come to the pool for the real thing.

Robertson could be an instigator as well. Evanston swim historian Chuck Fargo recalls “My freshman year we had a frosh meet at New Trier but there were no officials. So Dave became ref, starter, head judge, etc. and loaded both his relays with his frosh stud (Tom  Hempstead, 1966 Indiana letterman). We still won both relays and the meet,” says Fargo with satisfaction.

Onstott remains in swimming as the current NISCA president and will be in attendance Friday night when the centennial meet takes place. He credits Auger with helping to bring civility and class to the proceedings. “Prior to Kevin’s arrival it was close to physical stuff at times, it was not good. With Kevin involved it became a very civil situation, very intense and competitive. The rivalry has become more friendly,” says Onstott also buoyed by the fact that some of the athletes swim for the same club teams.

There are so many people who have been touched by the Evanston-New Trier rivalry,” says Patrick Burton, “so impactful that it remains with them until they go to the grave.”

The rivalry is in other words — life and death.

22 comments

    • Brittany Tepora

      Scott Osborn #1 we need to get a shot of Cohen with a crazy dive like that. #2 maybe I should try to catch a meet

    • Scott Osborn

      Brittany has no idea they had a rivalry like that. Pretty cool.

    • Christian Rhoten

      Scott Osborn the guy on the far right of that picture is Dana Caton he swam for EHS and EDWY

    • Scott Osborn

      oh that’s cool. I knew it was old by the body suits.

  1. Mike Ferrari

    John Lambert remember reading about these schools when we were children?

    • John Lambert

      Of course, they had all the All Americans when we were freshmen. Then it was them and Santa Clara

      • avatar

        Fun story to write and research given my roots as a suburban Chicago guy from back in the day.

    • Mike Ferrari

      No I don’t think so. Santa Clara was a Club but not a high school. I remember these two as the top of the heap. Then the Orange coast schools, Arcadia and, of course Saari’s El Segundo. another Thing I remember but haven’t thought I’d in a while, when awesome times stopped being 4 digits (1:01.4) and became 3 digits. that kind of mental shift will never happen again.

      • avatar

        The high school you are thinking of was Los Altos, then coached by Nort Thornton, later of Cal Berkeley fame. A number of his high school swimmers swam at Santa Clara for George Haines, among them Yale-bound and Olympian Steve Clark.

    • Mike Ferrari

      I had not read the article before I tagged you. Typical me, I know. The coaches longevity of course fed the rivalry. You had Pac8 of course but I don’t think we at GHS ever had a rivalry like that. Not even close.

    • Mike Ferrari

      Finally, notice the other people tagging friends. Maybe we’re not so weird after all 🙂

  2. Susan Leupold Knight

    Holly Dalman Hales, thought you might be interested.

  3. Charlene Tallen

    I just love old rivalries like this! We had a great rivalry in our conference too. Oh, how I miss High School swim meets 😊

  4. avatar
    anonymous

    No Mention of the legendary Ousmane Thiam, smh. Other than that, great article, enjoyable to read. Let’s go, Boys, Reeeeeevanston.

  5. avatar
    Patrick Burton

    What an Incredible evening of remembrance and Intense competition. Just like the old days. The Tradition continues!!!! This is the Terrific part of Life!!!🏊‍♂️💪👊🙏