Los Fresnos boys relay took different paths on journey to state

Throughout the years, the names and faces change, but the expectations for the Los Fresnos Falcons are as perennial as a paper daisy.

Senior Luis Osuna leads the charge in the 200-yard freestyle and 400 freestyle, making a triumphant return to Austin for the UIL state swimming championship today and Saturday. He’ll be joined by senior Robert Waters, Jonathan Hernandez (second year in swimming, didn’t know how to swim as a seventh-grader), senior Nate Layva (third year in swimming, 200 freestyle relay), and sophomore Evyn Garcia (400 freestyle relay).

“We knew it was not going to be easy, we had a lot of competition, and I was trying to keep everybody motivated,” Osuna said. “We went from not knowing each other to becoming a family and going to state together.”

Waters, the group’s emotional north star, has a calming effect on his teammates that appears as effortless as his glide through the water in his backstroke.

“Just don’t relax— get comfortable, but don’t relax,” Waters said. “If you relax then you let your guard down, and you don’t do as well as you should have. But if you get comfortable you’re not exactly relaxing, so you’ll still have your guard up.”

Waters seems at times to be the group’s resident old soul, and perhaps his sage advice can be attributed to his brief foray into football. His tenure as a two-sport athlete ended after breaking his leg in a football game his sophomore year, and he narrowed his focus to swimming the following season.

“Junior year, I started to really push it, but I only made it to the top 16 (at regionals),” Waters said. “This year I went all out, put everything I had into it. So, I got into the top spots in all of my events, but that’s because of the hard work and dedication I put in every single day.

“If I had done something different,” Waters adds, “I wish I would have practiced backstroke earlier than I did, instead of starting senior year.”

“If I had one regret, it was not keeping my head back far enough,” Waters said of his 54.73 time in a thrilling 100-yard backstroke race with Harlingen South’s Justin Diaz and Weslaco High’s Daryl Wells, edging Waters out of an additional state qualifying spot.

Coming off setting a Margaret M. Clark Aquatic Center record at last year’s regional, Osuna felt he and the Falcons had a tough act to follow.

“Before the races, I’ll give a speech for my team, the relay, and I’ll tell them about our journey that we’ve gone through,” Osuna said. “I just wanted to get them pumped up, and I told them to leave everything in the pool. And the results showed.”

With Osuna’s star power, key cogs in the Los Fresnos machine like Hernandez, Layva and Garcia can get overlooked.

In the 200 and 400 freestyle relays, Layva is the bridge between Waters and Osuna, Los Fresnos’ two fastest swimmers.

“I went from nothing to making it to state,” Layva said. “This is my first regional. I’m just proud of the guys we have, and we’ve been working hard all season, busting our behinds trying to get here. We finally did it.”

After a slow start to competitive swimming as a seventh- and eighth-grader, Hernandez was a late bloomer, skipping out on his freshman and sophomore seasons before returning to the pool as junior.

“I just want to thank God, first and foremost,” Hernandez said. “I started last year, and I was one of the slowest swimmers, I was, like, in Lane No. 3. Time by time, I kept moving up lanes. I want to thank Nate, because when I joined his lane, he didn’t necessarily talk to me. But he would always be in front of me, and I was always trying to touch his toes when it was my turn to go.”

Garcia, the youngest state-bound Falcons swimmer, has made a name for himself in a significant spot: the anchor in the 400 freestyle relay.

Though McAllen Memorial’s Cooper Gates finished well ahead of Garcia for first place, the Falcons dropped nearly seven and a half seconds from their entry time, and put some distance between themselves and third-place Harlingen South.

But Garcia, like some of his teammates, nearly decided he was finished with swimming before he ever got started.

“I started swimming in seventh grade and almost drowned,” Garcia said. “After the first practice, I felt like quitting, but my parents helped me through it. In the summer of eighth grade, going into freshman year, I joined club. I prayed before all of my events and regionals. Luis kept me going, so did my team. My goal was to help these guys go to state, because it’s their last year.”

One of the biggest challenges for swimmers who want to get to the next level is overcoming the lack of structure that comes with winter break.

“We had a two-week break off for Christmas,” Waters said. “During that break, we knew we couldn’t let go of our conditioning because we had to keep practicing every day. But some of us were out of town, so we had to find ways to swim and work out. The New Braunfels swim team has a pool up there, and they let me swim alongside them, and their coach was really helpful.”

Los Fresnos swim coach Jaime Perez wasn’t surprised that Waters and others maintained their conditioning over the break.

“The people that really care about swimming is other swimmers,” Perez said. “It’s the swimming community. We appreciate it — those swims that we saw (at the regional final) we’re like, ‘Yeah, we know what it took to get there.’ So it’s special to us.”

Perez acknowledged that many of his swimmers have benefited from the instruction of Brownsville’s Great Whites swim club during the offseason. Perez also said the new Los Fresnos ISD Aquatic center, in its second year of operation, was instrumental for the Falcons and their improved performance this season, adding that the upgraded facility will help develop the Los Fresnos diving program.

“I want to give credit where credit is due,” Perez said. “Head coach Ryan Shea from the Great Whites, he does a heck of a job with his swim club. He’s the one who puts in all the extra hours. So we benefit a lot from him, because when I get swimmers from the Great Whites, I know that their technique is solid and that they’ve been trained well. So it’s my job to just continue what he’s doing.”

No matter what the Falcons do at state, Osuna and his teammates already feel that their success to this point is validation enough for the sacrifices each of them made to grow closer together.

“Early in the morning, we practiced, we ran every day,” Osuna said. “It was a constant battle. It was just hard. Just to be able to take these guys (to state) — it was a collective effort from everybody.”