For many, getting to the state meet is a tremendous accomplishment.
As it pertains to Michael Eaton, however, he's well past the stage of his career where just reaching the state meet is enough.
The St. Clairsville senior has his sights set on the big prize.
ST. CLAIRSVILLE senior Michael Eaton enters his final state swimming championship as the second seed in the 100 breaststroke. He’s pictured with his mother, and head coach, Melanie.
As he embarks on his fourth consecutive trip to Canton's Branin Natatorium for the OHSAA State Swimming Championship, Eaton will be a busy young man, taking part in two events on Thursday evening when the qualifying swims unfold.
He earned an automatic qualifying spot in the 100 breaststroke after he claimed the district title last Friday at Ohio State. He learned on Sunday that he'd also be competing in the 100 freestyle after earning an at-large bid.
"It's an honor (to be going back), and I am definitely looking forward to the challenge," Eaton said. "I am going to enjoy this (opportunity) and do everything I can to come out (of the meet) as the (state) champion."
For the first time in his career, Eaton geared his training for the state meet. In years' past, he'd backed off his training for the district meet, hoping to give himself the best chance to reach the state meet.
"I was confident that I could make it to state even with a hard week of training, barring something bad happening in a race," Eaton confessed. "I felt pretty safe, because I've swam every breaststroke this season under a minute, that was I was going to make it."
Thus far, the strategy has worked out brilliantly.
Eaton comes into the 100 breaststroke, which features a loaded field, seeded second with his personal-best time of 56.49.
"It's a great feeling going in to know that I have a little bit more room to improve," Eaton said. "It's a tight field, so that little bit of time could be very important."
There will be a lot of familiar faces with Eaton in the breaststroke. Seven of the top 10 finishers, including five of the top six from 2013, are in the field for this week.
Actually, eight of the top 10 are competing this weekend, but one moved up to Division I this season. However, last year's sixth-place finisher in Division I dropped down and he's seeded just two hundredths of a second behind Eaton.
"The top four are separated by less than half a second, so it's crazy," Eaton said.
As you'd expect, every swimmer in the field has dropped time. For instance, Eaton's clocking would have won the state title by more than half a second.
"It's just getting faster and faster," Eaton said.
Included in the list of returnees is defending state champion Jonathan Rutter of Cincinnati Wyoming. He won the district championship at Miami of Ohio with a 56.30 clocking.
"Rutter is good, consistent, fast and a true champion, but there are four or five other boys who are nipping at his heels," Eaton said. "I wouldn't say, by any means, there's any one favorite. Everyone's in the same situation, so no one will be able to save anything on Thursday because everyone in the 'A' final is going to be well under a minute."
Eaton admits to lying in his bed at night envisioning how this race could unfold and he keeps coming back to the word, "perfect."
"If you don't have the perfect race, you could finish anywhere from first to fifth," Eaton said. "It's going to be anyone's race that will come down to who wants it the most, and I think there's a realistic shot that I can do it."
In the 100 freestyle, Eaton is seeded 14th with a 48.07. He finished fourth in the district.
"I wasn't surprised that I made (the state in freestyle) because the time I swam was faster than the time I won the district (championship) with last year," Eaton said.
"It's just a year-to-year thing of these times keep dropping. I am seeded right around where I was last year. I am going to go as hard as I can in that race and see what happens."
Eaton's prep career is unmatched by any swimmer from Belmont County.
He's won multiple OVAC titles, owns numerous pool and conference records, has captured multiple district and sectional titles and is two solid swims away from becoming the first two-time all-Ohioan in the sport from this county.
"I couldn't be happier (with how my high school career as gone)," Eaton said. "I know a lot of kids go through high school swimming and they don't drop a lot of time from their freshman season through their senior year.
"But, I've been able to get faster each season. Knowing that I've been able to improve each year has been an awesome feeling."
As exciting as Eaton's chase is for him, the entire trip to Stark County is bittersweet. He knows his time as a prep swimmer is winding down, but Eaton knows he's got a big few days ahead, so there's no time for negative emotion.
"I am sure after the breaststroke (on Friday) that it might set in and be a little bit emotional at that point," Eaton said.
"Until then, I am just enjoying it and I'm not looking back."
Staskey can be reached at email@example.com