NAPPANEE – Traditionally, NorthWood doesn’t have a ton to celebrate in the swim season come February given its logistics and what it faces from its neighboring schools. That changed last season as Caden Jenkins broke through and not only earned NorthWood a rare tournament championship, but set himself up for another run at tournament glory.
Jenkins, then a junior, not only surprised himself but stunned the Northern Lakes Conference with a championship diving series at Northridge. What has typically become the Northridge and Concord show in diving over the past decade or two, Jenkins found himself smack dab in the mix after the morning session of the conference tournament. In fact, Jenkins and Concord’s Aaron Leas had separated themselves as the top two divers heading into the final.
In what Jenkins noted at the time as nerve wracking, he executed his program to a tee and Leas couldn’t match him, earning the Panther his first-ever high school diving championship. Pulling away, his 420.15 was a full 34 points better than Leas and well ahead of Wawasee’s duo of Dane Jenkins and Brady Claassen.
“Normally I visualize the dives I want to perform and picture them as they should be done,” Jenkins said. “I then reflect on how well I’ve done on those dives before and then put that reflection toward the other dives. If I know where I can find the right kick out and spot for one dive in a certain direction, then I know when to find it for the other dives.”
Jenkins’ routine would stay the same for the state tournament last February, and the results were similar. While Leas was able to close the gap at the sectional, Jenkins managed to stay clear of the Concord senior and add a rare sectional title for NorthWood, winning 408.8-398.25. Jenkins later went on to earn a state berth, taking fifth at the Penn Regional with a 366.15, ironically just shy of Leas’ 369 series.
State wasn’t the boon Jenkins had hoped for, finishing 26th and out of the first round. But for a second straight year, Jenkins accomplished his goal of making the state championships, and added some hardware along the way.
“I really embraced the harder competition as the season went along,” Jenkins said. “I anticipated the challenges. I found myself focusing on what I could do, not what others were doing.”
Jenkins returns this winter for his senior season as the incumbent on the board in both the conference and the sectional rounds. Leas has graduated as did Noah Sears from Elkhart Central and Claassen from Wawasee, who were right behind Jenkins at the sectional. That’s not changing Jenkins’ approach, and his coach, Sheryl Hawkins, has already seen his work ethic preparing for a big finale.
“He’s very competitive and laser focused,” Hawkins said. “He gets locked in and it’s very exciting to watch him at that point because he can pull off some excellent dives. He’s trained all year for this and he’s excited to get back into his home pool. Just seeing him work these first few practices, he’s going to be hard to beat. And being as humble as he is, that quality will only help him along.”
Jenkins and NorthWood will jump into the season tonight as it travels to Bremen for a trio with the Lions and Knox.
“The athleticism out of the boys this year has changed so much,” Hawkins said. “Both the boys and girls here have come in mentally ready to go. The wins both Caden and (graduated senior) Jason McNeill has last year let these kids know that hey, we can win. We can have success. I’ve seen that in the offseason. Are we just going to jump in and beat Concord and Northridge? No. But I don’t see a reason why we can’t compete. And these kids believe that.”