By BRIAN JENNINGS
Sixth year coach Evan Tuttle stood behind the blocks with his hands on his hips, surveying each lane like a hawk as his young swimmers glided by one another in perfect synchronization.
After finishing a set of laps, swimmers grabbed kickboards that were left outside of the pool at the blocks. A white sheet of paper pressed up against each kickboard, protected by a plastic covering, exhibited Tuttle’s designed drills for the practice.
“We like to build on every single season,” the Knights coach said. “We look at where we left off last year, especially all of those who are returning in times, and we want to build off of that. We don’t want to really regress. The compliment of the new athletes, who have some competitive swimming experience, in addition to an excellent work ethic, should be able to fill those voids from those key graduating seniors and pick up where we left off last year. We have a young team in the pool right now with a bright future ahead of this program.”
The Knights finished the 2014-15 regular season with a 9-2 record, 3-2 in the CCC West (third), placing second at the CCC meet and 17th at the Class LL state meet.
Southington graduated eight seniors from last year’s team, including Class LL finalists Matt Duszak, Kevin Corcoran, Mack Golos, and Nick Brazil.
“There’s absolutely no replacing those four seniors from last year’s team, not just in terms of the events that they swam, but their leadership and character,” said Tuttle. “They’ve set a good example for this year’s captains and many captains in the future. But in particular, in terms of events, of those four you’re looking at two of our best breaststrokers, two our best distance swimmers, and probably our fastest sprinter. So we had some big shoes to fill, but I’m happy and quite confident to say that I believe we filled those shoes with the new kids coming in this year.”
On the other hand, Southing returns a strong core of experienced swimmers, led by co-captains Austin Bull, Andrew Ackerman, and Andrew Rogalski.
“Anytime I choose a captain, whether it be one or more, I tell the team that theses folks are an extension of myself,” the coach said. “And so that’s really my number one criteria when I’m looking at captains. It’s trust and can I expect these individuals to emulate what it is I want the team to be doing in the standards, behavior, and the work ethic. Those are three individuals, who I think can see through my initiatives and goals.”
Bull will primarily be swimming distance, establishing himself as a point-scoring distance swimmer for the Knights last season, and will be expected to be leading the way in that category this year. Ackerman will be in a mix of the freestyle events, sprinting and putting in some work in the 200 freestyle, 500 freestyle and 100 backstroke a well. Rogalski is a sprinter and will be swimming in the freestyle events.
“Collectively, that core group of seniors has been with the team for four years now,” said Tuttle. “They’ve seen the example that past captains have set. They know the expectations on the team. Every single step along the way for four years they’ve been making the right choices, which is why it was an easy choice for me to choose them as team captains.”
They will be joined by seniors Dom Rossi, Steve Sokolowski, John Stevens, and Dariusz Zajac. All have been contributing for many years, even though some started as sophomores with limited competitive swimming experience. Since their beginnings in the program, they have turned themselves into reliable athletes through their hard work, and will be looking to score some points for the team.
Tuttle said that he looks to have Stevens right up there leading the team in the breaststroke, while Rossi will be competing in any freestyle event, mixed with the 100 breaststroke and 100 backstroke. They will be essential to the depth of the team.
Those seniors will be joined by juniors Zack Blake and P.J. Ramsey and sophomores Evan Bender and Ben Wakefield, who all competed at last year’s state meet. Ramsey held Southington’s best finish in an individual event at last year’s state meet by placing 13th in the 100 fly.
The Knights have also added about a dozen new swimmers to the program this year, who are expected to make an impact right off the hop. Those whose presence will be felt immediately include sophomore Brendon Egan and freshmen Anthony Sagnella, Jackson Schroeder, and Chase Galayda.
“He’s [Galayda] been diving for a total of a week and a half now,” said Tuttle. “He’s locked in, not just each of the formats of diving, but raising the degree of difficulty in about a week and a half. He’s been able to put together some dive sets that should be able to get him into the state meet in his first competition. We have a bright young star in diving.”
Galayda comes to the Southington diving program as a very talented gymnast, trying his hand at diving with no prior experience. Galayda will be working throughout the season with assistant coach, Jan Zagorski.
“She’s [Zagorski] been a tremendous asset for this team from the day she started,” the coach said. “If you’re looking for where credit is due for how far diving has come, she’s the one you point to. She works very well with those kids and motivates them easily. She has gotten us to the point where we’re finally competitive in an event where we’ve struggled for a long time.”
Depth will serve as a major strength to the Knights upcoming season, which will also have an effect on the Southington divers.
“We’ve been fortunate for the past few years to have good numbers and depth,” the Southington coach said. “I’ve got a handful of kids that I can mix into really any event. Typically in the past because we don’t have the facility here on site and there’s not really a youth program for diving in the area, diving has always been an area of growth for this team. The young Chase Galayda will really be enhancing the overall effect of our team this year.”
There have been years in the past where the Knights have not had any divers, but this year proves to be just the opposite. Galayda will also dive with senior Katie Furgalack, junior Victoria Duszak, and freshman Kian Siadat.
As it has been every year for Tuttle and company, the team’s overall goal remains the same: advance as many athletes to the state meet as possible. Although the winter swim season is the longest season of any high school sport, the Knights strive for a successful season by seeing it through right to the very end.
“We aim to make it as long as possible by advancing as far as possible,” said Tuttle. “It’s never really being satisfied or not letting yourself set into any sort of apathetic nature. Once you’ve reached one goal, set the bar a little higher, as the mentality has always been with this team. So always really pushing yourself. It’s a long season and it can tend to be difficult to stay focused and motivated. We have a strong core group of student athletes, who have been working tirelessly in the offseason to make this season their best yet.”
Tuttle said that the team’s strengths heavily outweigh any weaknesses that the Knights might have.
“We are always trying to improve,” the coach said. “If an individual thinks that they have a weakness in their event or something they need to work on, whether it be a start, turn, or technique, then it’s on that individual basis. Each person in the pool or on the diving board needs to stay focused and work every single day to be a little better.”
Tuttle said that he is excited about the renovations of the Southington Community YMCA with the addition of the new balcony that outlines a panoramic view of the pool above, allowing three or four times as many spectators as in past meets.
“It’s an exciting sport,” said Tuttle. “But more specifically with this team, the energy is off the charts. If you’re looking to see not just good competition, but you’re looking for energy, then we’re the team to watch.”
To comment on this story or to contact sports writer Brian Jennings, email him at BJennings@SouthingtonObserver.com.