Western’s Swimming and Diving Teams Defend State Titles
By Eric J. Wallace
Coming off what coach Dan Bledsoe described as “an incredible turnout for preseason conditioning,” the WAHS boys and girls varsity swimming and diving teams were poised for a repeat of last year’s winning performances. “Last year the boys’ team won its first-ever state championship, while the girls won their sixth straight,” said Bledsoe. “But we didn’t let that success go to our heads. We wanted to make sure we put in the hard work and effort necessary to perform at our best, regardless of what we may have done before.”
Toward that end, the team began training back in early September—a full month before tryouts. The workouts were well-attended, with more than 50 boys and girls showing up regularly. “We emphasized aerobic conditioning to prepare our swimmers for their in-pool development and worked on core strength to help minimize injuries due to weak cores,” explained Bledsoe, describing the offseason regimen. “More than anything, we wanted to be sure we were in tiptop shape going into the season.”
Despite graduating last year’s Virginia High School League 50-meter freestyle state record-breaking champion, Aaron James, the WAHS boys squad featured an exceptional group of returning seniors. Of these, Bledsoe said AJ Donovan, Matt Mandell and Kevin O’Shea were the core of the team’s leadership. “These are three hard-working and talented young men, both in and out of the pool,” said Bledsoe. “None are year-round swimmers, but all three are competitive on the state level with their year-round counterparts. They are incredible leaders and role models for their teammates, and their leadership and conduct both in the pool and out sets the tone for practices and competitions, and pushes their teammates to be better swimmers.”
Of the above three, over the course of the winter season, Donovan proved to be the standout. At last year’s state championship meet he competed on the 200-meter freestyle relay team that, anchored by James, won gold and set a state record. This year, according to Bledsoe, Donovan performed well and proved to be a team leader throughout the season.
Spearheaded by that leadership, the boys had an incredible season. “During the holiday break they competed in the Hanover Invitational Meet in Richmond, which included 13 private and public schools, and they took first place,” said Bledsoe. After that, the team won the local Ben Hair Invitational, which also serves as the Jefferson District Championship meet, and “added to their success by winning the Conference 29 championship in convincing fashion,” continued Bledsoe. “On Feb. 7, we finished second behind Hidden Valley High School in the Region 3A Championship.” At the regional meet, 18 boys qualified to participate in the state championship, which was held on Feb. 16 and 18.
Of the 18 WAHS swimmers who participated in the state competition, 16 scored points—with many logging team record-setting performances—netting the Warriors a runner-up finish overall.
“In individual events, we had Morgan James in the 50 freestyle, August Lamb in the 200 individual medley, Noah Hargrove in the 500 freestyle and Mandell in the 100 breaststroke,” said Bledsoe. “Meanwhile, in the relays, we had Hargrove, Mandell, Jason Heilman, and Donovan breaking the Medley Relay team record, and Lamb, Stefan Karp, Johnny Riordan and Hargrove working together to break the 400 freestyle relay team record.”
Earning all-state honors were Morgan James, Noah Hargrove, Matt Mandell, Jason Heilman, AJ Donovan, August Lamb, William Peritz, Johnny Riordan and Stefan Karp.
While Bledsoe says the boys team had depth to spare, going into the season he was worried the girls squad might prove lacking, having graduated 10 key seniors last year. “No matter what sport it is, if you lose that many players it’s a hard blow,” he said. “Last year, we did a great job of mixing year-round swimmers with non- year-round swimmers, and we had greater depth than most teams—we’d created this culture where every person on the team felt like they could step in for someone else at any moment. However, this year, while our girls’ team was still very talented, we weren’t as deep. Which meant everyone really had to contribute and step up, and they did.”
Crucial to the girls effort was exemplary junior Amie Benson, who, last year, was a key member of the squad’s star 100-meter relay team. Known for her killer instinct, according to Bledsoe, Benson is the kind of swimmer that, once she hits the water, will stop at nothing until her hand touches the wall and the race is over.
Led by Benson, the girls also took first place at Richmond’s Hanover Invitational which, in their case, included 15 private and public schools. After that, competing in what is effectively the Jefferson District Championship meet, they placed a close second to Albemarle High School in the Ben Hair Invitational. However, bouncing back from the disappointment in true Warrior fashion, they responded by winning both the Conference 29 and Region 3A championships respectively, with 11 swimmers qualifying for state championship competition. At the state meet, the girls team had 9 different athletes score points where, led by Charlotte Norris, Carey D’Atre, Mia Donaldson and Sarah Gemeny, they finished fourth.
Overall, Bledsoe says he couldn’t be more proud of his teams’ achievements. “It’s like I always tell them, ‘Great moments are born from great opportunity,’” he said. “This season, we had another opportunity to do great things and these kids seized that opportunity and ran with it.”