By John Goralski
Records seemed to fall every time that a Southington swimmer hit the water last fall. A senior broke her own record in the 100 breaststroke, and she snapped another record in the 100 freestyle. A freshman broke the 50 freestyle record, and a four-person relay shattered the 200 freestyle mark.
A record number of athletes clawed their way into the postseason. Southington fought their way to the finals in eight different events. Southington had only sent one diver to the state open during a decade long quest, but the Lady Knights sent two individuals and a relay to the elite competition to cap last autumn’s campaign.
So what does a team do after such a special season? They do it again.
“The goal is to have a deep enough program that we don’t fall into rebuilding years,” said Lady Knight swim coach Evan Tuttle. “It’s my expectation that we graduate a strong senior class every year, but we’re back at it the following year. That’s the sign of a healthy program.”
Sure, the Knights have graduated one of their most decorated swimmers in program history. Sure, they’ve lost a talented senior class that was littered with four year contributors, but Southington returns a strong veteran core including seven of last year’s 10 postseason qualifiers.
“We have girls that were part of last year’s records, and we’ve got strong freshmen coming in. We also have a good group of girls that have put in a tremendous amount of work since last season,” said Tuttle. “I have every reason to believe that this is going to be another tremendous year for us in the pool.”
It won’t be easy. Southington battled to a 7-5 record last year, but they managed just one victory in five attempts in the powerhouse CCC West. This year will prove to be just as challenging in the conference, but that means that the Knights will be battle-hardened again when the postseason approaches. The key to hitting fast times is swimming against top competition, and that’s no problem with Southington’s regular season schedule.
“It’s always one meet at a time and figuring out lineups to get us ready for any particular meet. The best competition that we have is always in our conference, and that’s going to be the same this year,” said the coach. “I think we continue to surprise people. We’re a team that a lot of people tend to underestimate, so we really want to prove ourselves. This year, we’ll have another opportunity to do that.”
To lead the charge, Tuttle will turn to a trio of veteran captains. Bailey Potter qualified for the postseason in three events last year and was a crucial component to the team’s record-setting relay. Jennifer Monte and Ashley Christensen were central figures during the regular season and have led the Knights in the off-season with their focus on swimming.
As a group, their leadership will be instrumental to Southington’s efforts as they balance their veteran experience with a surge of underclassmen talent.
“All three captains bring experience and a knowledge of what it means to be a teammate and a leader,” Tuttle said. “They are all great examples of good role models. They are all four-year swimmers. They all know what it takes to be successful, and they’ve all put in the time and effort to be successful.”
That will be the key to Southington’s success throughout the season. With 50 swimmers, Southington has the numbers to compete with the powerhouse teams on their schedule. Effort, focus, and teamwork will be the intangibles that determine their success.
“We have to maximize the amount of time that we have in the pool, and we have to take care of ourselves once we leave the pool deck,” said Tuttle. “I told the girls that we have to be always working toward our goals. It’s not just swimming. It’s academic and life goals, too. We can never take a day off.”
Southington’s strength will be its versatility. With a large roster, Tuttle has a number of girls in every event. Most of the top swimmers are strong in a number of different events, so the Knights should be able to shift their roster for each different challenge.
As the current 50 freestyle record holder, sophomore Marisa Matthews will lead the sprints. She’ll be joined by postseason qualifiers Ally Schroeder, Bethany Greenlaw, and Potter. Hannah Olsen returns to the varsity lineup. Incoming freshman Olivia Fournier is expected to make an instant contribution
“There are probably a dozen other girls on our roster that I feel comfortable putting into a sprint race to score points. It’s a really big group,” said the coach. “We can move a lot of people in and out of the lineup, and that’s good for our relays. We have enough sprinters that we can not only have a strong A-relay, but strong B and C relays, too. That’s a big difference in meets if you can pick up those points.”
Distance events should have just as much depth with Kerry Buchanan, Schroeder, Potter, Monte, and Christensen anchoring the 200m and the 500m events. Up-and-coming sophomore Sarah Mirisola should also figure into the mix.
Southington could hold a distinct advantage when it comes to the odd strokes. Schroeder and Potter were both state qualifiers in the backstroke last year. Fournier is a strong addition, along with sophomores Abby Alfieri and Evelyn Holbrook.
Matthews was a state finalist in the breaststroke as a freshman. Greenlaw was a state qualifier, and they will be joined by the Zajac sisters (Jolanta, Angelika, and Patricja), along with Kara Zazzaro, Sam Jones, and Christensen. Sam Sagnella returns to lead the butterfly with Kristen Loose, Kerry Buchanan, Olsen and Matthews.
“We have a significant number of girls that can swim in every event, and that’s nature of this team,” said Tuttle. “Our freshmen and sophomore classes are really strong, and they can match up with our junior and senior classes. The more that we can develop our depth at all strokes, the deeper we’ll be. That will make us competitive against those dominant programs in our conference.”
The only question at the start of the season will be diving where Southington will turn to a new group of rookie divers. With off-site training and no diving at home meets, diving continues to be the biggest challenge for the Southington team, but Tuttle is optimistic about his team’s chances.
“We had to recruit early in the season, and we have a lot of new divers,” he said. “If we can get them to competition level as fast as possible, that’s where we can see the most improvement.”
Will the Knights continue to shatter records? Will they close the gap with the powerhouse programs and overwhelm the lesser teams? Will they be ready for their annual postseason surge? Will they return to the state open?
That’s what we’ve come to expect.
To comment on this story or to contact sports writer John Goralski, email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
By John Goralski