SKOKIE — Screams echoed back and forth across the pool at Niles West on Friday, just before the start of the varsity 400-yard freestyle relay. Two lines formed at the end of the pool to watch the last race of the night. Only two points separated the two schools that are coached by two close friends.
“Niles West re-lay!” the girls in red chanted and clapped.
“Niles North re-lay!” the other team chanted right back.
There was silence for the start, but the chaos resumed after the starting buzzer.
One coach’s arms were crossed, the other’s hands on his hips. Both looked up at the scoreboard after the girls touched the wall, then looked at each other.
Niles North won the relay and beat Niles West 95-91. For the first time in nine years, Niles West coach Jason Macejak relinquished the meet’s prized “Skokie Splash” trophy to Paul Torres, his rival coach and friend since high school.
The two swam together for Niles West in the 1990s and were in each other’s weddings. They now have children in the same kindergarten class. Macejak brought Torres on as an assistant coach at Niles North in 2001 where the two coached together for three years before Macejak became the head coach at Niles West. Torres said that beside the sectional and conference meets, the dual between the Skokie schools is the third most important meet for the two friends and their teams.
“It’s always really tense because we’re really good friends, except when it comes to the meet. It’s almost like when you’re friends you want to beat them more,” Torres said. “There’s a really strong rivalry between the schools and it’s always very close, emotions run high and it always comes down to that last relay.”
The winning relay team was comprised of sisters Alma and Selma Jukic, Olivia Klafta and Azra Avdic whose time of 3 minutes, 47.15 seconds sealed the win. Niles North led 87-85 going into the final relay. Had the Vikings come in second and third instead of first and third, Niles West would’ve tied the meet.
After scores had been totaled, and the girls shook hands, Macejak presented Torres and his team with the bronze trophy of a diver, the “Skokie Splash,” at a pizza party in the cafeteria.
“We’ve been doing this for nine years and this meet brings out the best in both teams,” Macejak said, “We get some great times, some great scores and a lot of swimmers stepping up to race their fastest.”