Gators End Impressive Season to Finish Second at JSLs

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Taylor Kagarise, Willow Phillips, Caroline Pinson, Emma Lane Schnell, and Savannah Hankins. Photo: Jen Phillips.

When the Jefferson Swim League was founded 51 years ago in 1966, the “Village Club of Crozet” was one of its five original members. Now Crozet is much more than just a “village club.” Now it is one of the biggest of 18 teams, one of the perennial contenders for the crown, and the only squad to have beaten Fairview in the Championship in the past 27 years.

This year the competition at the top was especially close—the top three teams were separated by only 124 points, and they jockeyed for position all season long and up through the final races of the championship. In the end, Fairview held on to win with 2,395 points, while Crozet took 2nd with 2,285, leaving ACAC in 3rd with 2,271.

Coaches Hunter Mitchell and Alex Rayle talk to Jack Burr after his race. Photo: Alisa Sposato.

Head Coach Alex Rayle is in his second year leading the Gators, but he’s been with the team since he started swimming in 2003, and he’s been assistant coaching with the team since he was 16. Having just graduated from UNC-Wilmington and its swim team in May, Rayle now has a full-time position as Head Age Group Coach for CYAC, the Charlottesville YMCA Aquatics Club, a year-round team on which many Gators also swim. Rayle was extremely pleased with the Gators’ performance this year, not just at Champs but all along the way. The Gators had a season record of 3-2, with their two losses coming at the hands of Fairview and ACAC. (The Gators easily beat the other teams in Division I: Forest Lakes, Boar’s Head, and Fry’s Spring.) Despite the tough loss, Rayle remembers the ACAC meet on June 28 as his favorite of the season. “We went in knowing it was going to be really tight meet, and we were going into their home pool,” he says, noting that the ACAC pool is 50 meters, which puts Crozet at bit of disadvantage since the Gators train in a 25-meter pool. But the Crozet swimmers rose to the challenge beautifully: “We were swimming really fast, and team spirits really were high. All the kids were cheering really loud, older and younger. Last year, we were in same situation with ACAC, but our mindset was totally different this year going into the meet and throughout it. It was good to see to that transformation.” The final score was 541.5 to 528.5. But Crozet would avenge that 13-point deficit exactly one month later.

Michael Heilman swims butterfly. Photo: Cherie Witt.

On July 28, the first day of Champs, Crozet was back in a foreign pool and back in a close battle with ACAC, but this time the setting was Fork Union, hosting the JSL Championship for the second time since its usual home at the UVA Aquatics and Fitness Center was under construction. That day, the youngest and oldest swimmers raced their hearts out in the first two sessions of the meet. The 6-and-under and 7/8 age groups saw lots of big moments, like Miller Grimes setting a JSL record for the 7/8 girls 25 freestyle, and the mixed 5/6 freestyle relay, comprised of Bowen Hunt, Dilyn Carter, Willow Philips, and Katherine Heilman, smashing the JSL record by almost 14 seconds. The young ones’ efforts put Crozet in second place to ACAC at the end of the first session.

Then their older teammates took the pool. Swimmers like Haley Sheffield, who out-touched a higher-seeded Fairview swimmer to win the 50-meter freestyle, provided a lift not just in points but also in spirits as the long meet went on into Friday evening. “Shout out to our 13-and-over section who made second possible,” Rayle said. “They over-performed what was expected of them. Probably about 90% of the swimmers in that group set personal bests. I was very proud of them for stepping up.”

Evan Sposato dives in. Photo: Alisa Sposato.

Saturday morning, the time drops continued. In the 9/10 boys individual medley, Finnegan Driscoll, Nolan Liang, and Gage Davis all took almost 7 seconds off their previous best times. “I haven’t had a championship meet as successful as this one in terms of time-drops,” Rayle said. Meanwhile, superstar Thomas Heilman didn’t just win every individual race he swam in, but also set new JSL records in all them, too: the 50m freestyle, 50m backstroke, and 50m butterfly. Heilman, who goes to Brownsville Elementary School, was the High Point Award Winner for the JSL boys 9/10 age group, and he’s also currently ranked second for his age in the nation in the 50 and 100 freestyle, races for which he also holds the state records. On the girls side, the free relay team of Sarah Jordan, Ella Wagner, Bree Palmer, and Willa Simmons came up with a big first-place finish, too. Swimming the anchor leg, Simmons clinched the victory even though she lost her goggles mid-race and had to battle blindly to the finish!

With incredible performances like that, Crozet was clearly swimming its best. But Fairview took the lead and ACAC squeaked into second, so that Crozet was in third place going into the final session of the meet. Rayle and the other Crozet coaches, however, knew that their 11/12 age group would provide a powerful finish that ACAC might not have a big enough lead to withstand. They were right. The 11/12 swimmers provided more moments for the highlight reel, such as the first-place-winning, JSL-record-setting races of the boys medley relay team, made up of Henry Addison, Jack Burr, Jonathan Alexander, and Anthony Garono, and the boys free relay team, made up of Addison, Alexander, Jonah Davis, and Ian Ratcliffe. When the last swimmer climbed out of the pool on Saturday afternoon, Crozet had climbed into second, edging out ACAC by 14 points—one more than they had lost to them by one month before.

Coaches Lexi Campbell and Elsa Strickland cheer on a swimmer.

Though obviously proud of the team’s awesome time improvements and hard fought races, Rayle was perhaps most proud of his team’s energy and enthusiasm. Known throughout the league for its sportsmanship and spirit, Crozet stayed true to its character this year. “We were a well-oiled machine,” Rayle said. “Last year, I set a lot of things in place, and there was a lot of adjusting. This year, everyone knew what the expectation was, we started off where we ended last year, and it just felt like a really fun, high-spirited swim team.” That blend of discipline and drive with camaraderie and conviviality is what makes the Gators such a successful and joyful program. Coach Rayle continued, “The support that the team gives each other at meets and at practice was so much higher this year, and it wasn’t even something I had to harp on, they just kinda did it on their own. Everybody got what the meaning of the team was from top to bottom and it really showed this year.” Rayle knows the meaning of the team so well because he’s been a part of it for so long, as have his assistant coaches, Elsa Strickland, Hunter Mitchell, Lexi Campbell, Emily Farabaugh, and swimmer/coach Colleen Farabaugh, all of whom were once Gators themselves. In fact, Rayle’s first coach when he himself was just a little 8-year-old Gator was Sarah Sprouse Hankins. This year, he coached her children Savannah and Jackson. Clearly, the Crozet swim team makes a family, and once you’re a Gator, you’re a Gator for life. From this “village club” perspective, that’s a pretty great thing to be.

Bowen Hunt dives in. Photo: Jen Phillips.

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