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Piner pulls off clutch dive for win

Staff Photo: Jonathan Phillips. Parkview's Sean Piner stretches to touch his toes during the second round of dives in the county championships on Wednesday.

Staff Photo: Jonathan Phillips. Parkview's Sean Piner stretches to touch his toes during the second round of dives in the county championships on Wednesday.

STONE MOUNTAIN -- With her own personal cheering section on hand, Sara Halliburton became just the second female diver in Gwinnett history to win three straight county titles Wednesday.

But one of the final dives of the night brought the biggest moment of the meet.

Parkview's Sean Piner had a scant lead on Mill Creek's Seth Burgmeier. Less than three points in fact.

The Burgmeier threw down the gauntlet with the opening dive of the final round. His 53.3-point effort meant Piner would need to be equally impressive. Piner had some time to think about it, too, as the third to last diver in the rotation.

The sophomore ripped it. An inward half somersault tuck for 51.7 points.

Piner beat Burgmeier, a junior, by .65 points -- 436.80 to 436.15.

His outward calm as he stood on the board before the final dive was a good cover.

"I was not calm at all," Piner said with a laugh. "I was freaking out. I was shaking I was so nervous."

Even when he hit the water, he wondered.

"I knew it would be close," Piner said. "I just wasn't sure."

Making the finish all the more impressive was that Piner struggled with some of his dives in the middle of the meet.

His coach, Bettie Hudson, had to pull him aside and have a little chat.

"He had a really good beginning," Hudson said. "Halfway through I think he just lost some of his concentration. We had a talk on Round 7. I said, 'you can no longer think about the points. You must think about the dive, only the dive.'"

Piner said the way Burgmeier was performing was the cause of the problem.

"He was doing so well," Piner said. "I knew he would be up there."

But Piner, who has only been diving for the last 18 months, answered the bell and did ever-so-slightly better.

"I told him he needed 50 points and he went up to the board and got 51," Hudson said. "I told him, 'Do what you know how to do. You've done it before. Just concentrate.' He pulled it off.

"I call him 'The Natural.' He just is."

While the boys race came down to the final moments, Halliburton settled in early and took home her third title.

Duluth continued its domination of the girls championship with Halliburton following in former Wildcat Lexie Bryant's footsteps. Between the two, a Duluth diver has won the country meet six of the last seven years.

Halliburton did it by smashing her personal best of 396 points and far exceeding her goal of going over 400.

Her final dive racked up nearly 50 points all on its own and she finished with 432.45 points at the Mountain Park Aquatic Center in Stone Mountain. It came close to Bryant's county meet record of 443.25.

Halliburton's 11th entry brought her four best friends -- wearing shirts that spelled out S-A-R-A in Wildcat purple -- to their feet.

"We've been known as the freshmen five forever and they came to support me and I love them," Halliburton said.

Parkview sophomore Tabitha Banks also put up a huge number, but because of Halliburton's effort, finished second with 418.85 points. Both scores qualified for all-American consideration.

Banks came over to give Halliburton a hug after it was all over and Halliburton was very complimentary of Banks.

"She dove great," Halliburton said. "She's so tight and so great."

Halliburton also talked about the success Grayson's Darcie O'Brien and Brookwood's Chloe Cotter had at the meet. Both juniors are first-year divers and finished a mere .05 apart. O'Brien had 369.25, Cotter 369.20.

"To come out and finish third and fourth in their first year, that's awesome for them," Halliburton said.

Despite her annual success at county, Halliburton said the pre-dive nerves never go away.

"Practice is one thing, but at the meet, it's hard to go for it all the way," she said. "It's hard to explain. You don't want to hold back, but you don't want to get the adrenaline going so you over-rotate.

"After probably the third dive, then you know you're in the zone and ready to go."

Halliburton added one new dive for the meet, one she did last Saturday and failed on due to a clerical error.

"It wasn't right on the score sheet," she said with a chuckle. "It had a different number so this is the first time they were actually able to score it for me.

"That was probably the one I was most nervous about. But everything else, I just wanted to hit like I knew how to do. My coach says one dive at a time. You don't have to get 9s on every one. I just wanted to stay in the 5, 6, 7 range."

It's that attitude that so impresses Duluth swimming coach Jim Reason.

"She's exactly what you want your daughter to be like," he said. "She's exactly what you want everyone on your team to be like. She's so humble. She's just so happy.

"I'm just very happy for her and very, very proud of her. She embodies everything we want to do. One dive at a time. Team, team, team. She's bought into it."