by John Goralski
It was just four years ago that Evan Tuttle struggled through a preseason interview making apologies for his team’s lack of swimmers at a preseason practice. He boasted just 20 girls on his varsity roster as he begged and pleaded throughout the school for divers and warm bodies.
That might be biggest reason for Tuttle’s wide grin as he welcomed a visitor to a preseason practice. The coach had to yell above the splashing of his team as they battled for elbow room in the pool.
Last year, the Lady Knights raised the bar with 11 girls at the Class LL qualifying meet. They raised eyebrows as two relays and one individual clawed their way into the finals, and they raised expectations for this fall when a junior qualified for the state open with a school record performance at the divisional meet.
It’s not surprising that Tuttle threw down the gauntlet to his team in the preseason. Gone is the talk about moral victories. No longer will he consider his team a long-shot against the powerhouse squads on his schedule. Sure, they’ll still be an underdog against some of the perennial powers, but Tuttle expects to give them a run for their money.
“I’ve always said that we will never underestimate an opponent, and I hope that nobody underestimates us,” he said. “I think we’re going to surprise a few people this year.”
With almost 50 girls on his roster, Tuttle finally has the numbers to compete against anybody in a dual meet. He returns a good group of veterans and a strong class of newcomers expected to make an immediate impact in the lineup.
“I was never able to say that we have strength in numbers, but I can comfortably say that now,” said Tuttle. “We have almost 20 freshmen and some other newcomers, and I think we can build them into veteran athletes to make those numbers work for us.”
At the head of the class are senior co-captains Laurel Dean and Aly Baribault. Last season, Dean advanced into the Class LL finals in two events and set a school record in the 100 breaststroke (1:09.64) as she became the first individual in years to earn a qualifying time for the state open. Baribault set the pace for the 400 relay team as they clawed their way into the Class LL finals, and both anchored multiple events throughout the season as Southington battled to a 6-5-1 record.
“I looked at both of them as freshman, and I knew that they were going to be captains based on the work that they put in and the attitudes that they had. They were made for this position,” Tuttle said. “If you ask them to run through a wall, they’ll run through a wall. If you ask them to swim the 100 freestyle—which is a sprint—and then get back in the water to run the 500 freestyle, they’ll be there. Anchor a relay? They’ll be in there. They’ll do anything for this team and anything to progress as athletes.”
That’s going to be the theme of this year’s team: What can you do to contribute? There’s no shortage of girls in any event, and that means that Southington will finally be able to give the powerhouse teams a tough challenge in every event—even the relays.
“In the past, we’ve had a really good A-relay, but we’ve had to come in first to balance off a second or third from a strong opponent,” said Tuttle. “I can throw a really good A, B, or C-relay at some teams this year, and that’s exciting.”
That’s a result of having talent in every race. Dean and Baribault will lead a solid core of sprinters. Joy Blanchet was a state-level performer as a junior last season, and freshman sprinter Marisa Matthews has preseason numbers that rival the upperclassmen.
Baribault will team with a pair of state-level swimmers to anchor the distance core. Junior Bailey Potter and sophomore Ally Schroeder have already proven themselves in the long races, and newcomer Kerry Buchanan adds some depth to the group.
“There are a number of other girls that I can work into any event, and that’s new,” said Tuttle. “We have a very strong upper class just like last year. Many of them are our strongest swimmers from last year, but what really has me excited is that we have a really strong freshman class to complement that strong senior group.”
That carries into the odd strokes, too. Dean headlines the group as the program’s top performer in the breaststroke, but Baribault and Bethany Greenlaw give Southington a three-headed attack. Potter returns as a top level backstroker, and she’ll be pushed by Buchanan right from the start.
The biggest question at the start of the season will be how Southington handles the loss of two powerful contributors in the butterfly, but Schroeder and Baribault are ready to step in while freshmen Sam Sagnalla and Matthews will compete for the top spot.
“We’re going to hear a lot of the same names in different events, but that’s a testament to how strong these girls are,” said Tuttle.
Even at diving, Southington should be able to stay competitive. Tia Jones returns for her third varsity season, and she’ll lead a group of newcomers at the away meets.
“We have big expectations for Tia,” said Tuttle. “We expect her to get into that state tournament, and we’ll see how far she can go.”
There will be plenty of chances to see how the Lady Knights measure up because Southington continues to compete in one of the toughest conferences in the state. The girls will open the season against non-conference rivals Plainville, Hartford co-op, and Bristol Eastern before diving into the CCC West schedule against teams like Hall, Conard, and Farmington.
How will they measure up? Tuttle can’t wait to find out.
“Our biggest question mark is if we can rise up to our high expectations, but I have no doubt that we will,” said the coach. “It’s a new culture here in town. A successful season will put at least one relay and a couple of individuals into the state opens. It’s our expectation to be there.”
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