Staff Photo: Jonathan Phillips<br> Parkview's Sean Piner flips through the air during one of his 11 dives at the county diving championships at Mountain Park Aquatic Center on Wednesday.
STONE MOUNTAIN — Sean Piner stood at the back of the diving board and inhaled a customary breath.
Then he took another. And another. One last deep gulp and he was in motion.
A collective breath was held on deck and every eye watched the Parkview junior vault into the air. The forward 31⁄2 somersault was as pretty as it was difficult and Piner nailed it. It carried him to a second straight Gwinnett County title and a near-record 532.35 points Wednesday at the Mountain Park Aquatic Center.
Piner won by .65 points last year. His margin was considerably less dramatic this time, but still filled with tension as he prepared for the final two dives both with a 3.0 degree of difficulty.
Thus the deep breaths. Did they help?
“Not really,” Piner said with a chuckle.
Piner finished five points shy of the all-time county record and nearly 170 points ahead of Collins Hill’s Patrick Clayton. But Clayton still earned a big cheer from the crowd after his 11th dive — where he edged out Dacula’s Hunter Ferrer by just over a point to take runner-up honors.
They weren’t the only ones with reason to celebrate. The top 10 finishers all qualified for state. Unprecedented in coach Bettie Hudson’s memory.
“I’ve been coaching 13 years and I’ve never seen the top 10 qualify for state,” said Hudson, who coaches Piner among many others. “There’s a lot of competition on deck and they knew it too. They knew they had to step up to the plate and say, ‘Hey, I need this dive.’”
Including one of her other charges, Parkview freshman Ben Warren. He made the cut for state on his final dive. Warren turned to look at the scoreboard and gave a shout and fist pump when it flashed 274.30 points. The reaction of the rest of the teams on deck reflected the accomplishment.
Still, it was Piner putting on the show.
His last three dives all drew raucous reactions as he defied gravity.
“He has that internal timing, that grace, that strength, that determination, that sportsmanship and that drive to just excel,” Hudson said.
After winning the county title and coming in a surprising second at state last season, Piner, who has been diving for just 21⁄2 years, opted to keep pushing the envelope.
“We set out last year after county and state, we looked at our program and he looked at his competition when he goes to state and he set his own goals,” Hudson said. “In order for him to really show, he knew that he had to get the higher (degree of difficulty). So it was something he chose. He could have just stayed in his comfort zone, but it wasn’t enough for him. He kept reaching for more.
“He’s really at the top of his game. And he’s a joy to watch.”
The reverse 21⁄2 somersault, Piner’s penultimate dive at the county meet, is one he began working on before the season started. The height was amazing, the spin tight and fast, the entry clean.
“The reverse 21⁄2 is probably my favorite dive,” Piner said. “I just think it’s fun to do. And it’s a lot different, which makes it special. But the front 31⁄2 is the scariest dive I’ve ever done. So that’s not my favorite.”
He’s only been doing that dive for about two months. You’d never know by watching Wednesday.
“Once he sets that body into motion, and each dive has it’s own position, then it appears to be effortless,” Hudson said. “And he does know when he has to work really hard to get that 21⁄2 or that 31⁄2.”
Piner was, admittedly, disappointed to miss the county record by so small a margin, but he had plenty to smile about overall.
“I mean, I want it really bad,” Piner said. “But I wasn’t really expecting it to get it this year. I was five points off so it’s kind of a bummer. But it’s my personal record, so it’s definitely a good day.”
Also qualifying for state were Michael Russell (Peachtree Ridge, fourth, 344.50), Andrew Dunn (Duluth, fifth, 342.75), John Marsh (Peachtree Ridge, sixth, 295.10), Rafael Ramirez (Meadowcreek, seventh, 284.15), Stephen Jou (Brookwood, eighth, 283.50) and Blaine Suarez (Mountain View, ninth, 276.0).
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