There are always many questions when a new high school sports season begins, and swimming is no exception.
Of course, with the delayed start of the 2020-21 campaign because of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, this season opens with far more questions than usual.
For starters, with one of the most regimented training schedules, swimmers build up endurance throughout the season leading up to league, district and state championships. Practices in December pay off in February and March.
But this December, pool access was limited, so it’s unknown what effect swimming will see in a truncated season.
Still, although plans changed with the state shutdown of school and youth athletics, expect Lancaster-Lebanon League swimmers to be raring and ready to go when they get back in the water on Monday.
“I believe the changes have made most of them more laid-back,” Cocalico coach Wendy Enck said. “There is constantly that feeling of the unknown, and that at any minute it could be taken away. What little practice time we did have, they seemed to have more fun and actually enjoy practice.”
Led by versatile senior Robert Gehman, who qualified for the 2020 PIAA Class 2A state championships in the 100-yard breaststroke and as a part of two relays, the Eagles are a team expected to make some noise this season.
Despite the graduation of Zach Sherk, who after setting a District Three record earned PIAA gold in the 100-yard breaststroke by virtue of having entered the eventually cancelled event as the top seed, plenty of others are ready.
“The team was looking really good the week before the shutdown,” Enck said. “When we return we’ll have one week of practice prior to our first meet. It’s definitely not enough time, but I know my swimmers will show up to compete and make the absolute best out of a tough situation.”
Ephrata coach Mickey Molchany said it may not take as long as people think for the swimmers to get ready.
“I think the athletes have been creative staying in shape and working on other areas that are going to make them stronger swimmers,” he said. “That being said, I don’t think they will be ready to just jump right into competition, either.”
Veteran Manheim Township coach Dan Graybill agrees, given the extensive dry-land training so many swimmers do.
“As long as they continue to exercise, get plenty of rest and eat properly, I think they’ll come back pretty quickly,” he said.
Another challenge is the fact that most L-L League schools do not have pools within their buildings, instead relying on local recreation and community centers.
Penn Manor lost its “home” pool at Millersville University just days before practice was to begin before the shutdown and has had to find other venues.
“The Lancaster YMCA and Hempfield Rec Center have allowed us to use their facilities and we could not be more grateful,” Penn Manor coach Eric Urban said. “The late start will be a setback, but the swimmers are looking forward to starting the season as soon as possible.”
The same thing happened to Elizabethtown.
“It’s been a tough challenge for us since we had to change practice locations and times,” Bears’ coach Chad Houck said. “We practice late in the night and keep our practice short so our swimmers can get home at a reasonable time. The kids have really been resilient and have done what it takes to keep our season going.”
At least league coaches know the shutdown’s effects will be felt across the board.
“Most swimmers are in the same position across the state, so I doubt we’ll see the same fast times as last year. But (states) will still be a competitive meet,” Hempfield coach Kate Rohrbaugh said.
“I expect most of the state will experience a more challenging season and our league and district are not immune,” Houck added.
Graybill also expects the championships to be affected because of reduced competition. However, he’s hopeful that his two boys relays, as well as swimmers Gabby Stramara, Olivia Pyott and 500 freestyle state eighth-place medalist Liz Perot will be back to compete among the PIAA elite.
“I remain optimistic that the swimmers and divers will rise above this adversity and have a productive season,” Graybill said.
Certainly, everyone is ready to go.
Molchany returns depth on both his boys and girls teams, including senior Thomas McGillan, who finished 12th in the Class 3A 50 freestyle at the state championships.
“Both teams are very anxious,” Molchany said. “Every practice we were able to have was a positive and exciting atmosphere. The kids just want the sense of normalcy.”
“They just want to be in the water, regardless of how this season started,” Urban added.
More swimmers to watch
Fresh off a sensational sophomore campaign, district champ Logan Smith of Cedar Crest returns after earning a bronze medal in the boys 100 breaststroke at the abbreviated 2020 PIAA Class 3A championships.
Donegal has multiple athletes that qualified for states last season. Unfortunately, the Class 2A state championships were postponed, then canceled, because of COVID-19.
District Three gold winner Jordynn Park was the top seed in the girls 100 breaststroke entering states and, like Sherk, was awarded the state gold medal.
Park is not the only returning Donegal swimmer who reached states. Girls teammate Claire O’Neill is also back, along with Ethan Shonk and Grant Leibfried on the boys side.