Norwin swim team looking at rebuilding year
Section 1-AAA got a lot more competitive in the pool.
Franklin Regional moves east this season to join the section Norwin and Penn-Trafford call home in swimming, which is another realignment move caused by the Pittsburgh City League dropping a sport and having its schools enter the WPIAL.
Joining those three in the Westmoreland-centric section will be Connellsville, Hempfield, Kiski Area and Latrobe, as the league is the only Class AAA section with fewer than eight teams.
The Panthers come in as last year's champ in boys and girls from their old section, where they faced teams such as Plum and Gateway, while Penn-Trafford is the reigning boys champ in Section 1, which should make for a hotly contested matchup when the teams meet on Jan. 10.
Below is a look at each of the local schools entering this season:
The Panthers girls were fourth and their boys were sixth at last season's WPIAL championship, and though head coach Vic Santoro wouldn't target a specific placing as a goal, Franklin Regional seems poised to again be a top-10 WPIAL team.
“We have some talented young swimmers, but we graduated a large class last year,” Santoro said. “I'm optimistic that we'll still be solid, and we have a full slate of divers this year, as well.”
Defending WPIAL 50- and 100-yard freestyle champion Alyssa Ruffing will lead the FR girls in her junior season, while her older sister, Kaitlyn Ruffing; fellow senior Nicole Stevenson; and junior Julianna Carolla all return after reaching the state meet last season.
Other swimmers, such as Rachel Barkey, Sam Tower, Cheyene McIntyre and Tori Frydrych, all competed in one or more event at last year's WPIAL meet, which gives Santoro plenty of talent to pull from.
“We developed a couple of young girls last year to fill the spots of people we lost before, and we hope to do the same this year,” Santoro said. “The medley relay is going to look a lot different, but we have a few tricks up our sleeve and some talented girls that we can put in there.”
On the boys side, Santoro is still waiting to find out if state qualifier Austin Mortimer will swim with the high school team again this year, but FR has a number of other WPIAL veterans who will be in the pool this winter.
Senior Dale Maholage is coming off winning a WPIAL medal last season in the 50 free, while twin brother David Maholage, Jon Palmer, Adam Dando, Nico Santoro and Nicholas Whiteman all come back off WPIAL-qualifying seasons. Add in incoming freshman Tyler Stevenson, and the Panthers should be contenders in their new section.
“On the guys side, Penn-Trafford is our new Gateway,” said Santoro, comparing the defending champ to FR's former biggest threat. “It's going to be a little different going into a new section, but many of these teams we've competed with for years. The only change is now they're our section opponents.”
The Warriors have a four-year unbeaten streak in boys dual meets, but that will be tested this year with the loss of multiple state champ Christian McCurdy and WPIAL champ Matt Baurle.
P-T does return many WPIAL veterans, including Matt Loughner, John Babik, Anthony Montalto, Christopher Marino, Anthony Sekowski and diver Paul Stock, which means the drop-off in performance might not be too severe.
“We can't replace those guys. We don't have new stars to replace those stars we lost, but the work ethic they had has been shared with our upperclassmen now, and they hope to carry the torch with that work ethic,” Penn-Trafford coach Dave Babik said.
The girls team for the Warriors has made major progress, according to their coach, and it could be poised for a standout season. Cassie Szmyd, Devon Davenport, Audra Ragan and Hayley Muro all swam at the WPIAL meet, and that experience could pay dividends this winter.
“I feel that our girls team is becoming a team to be reckoned with,” Dave Babik said. “It might be too early to say we can compete with the best teams in the WPIAL, but we're headed in that direction.
“The experience of going to WPIALs is invaluable. We try to instill in these kids the drive to get there as freshmen and sophomores so they can see what it's like. As they get older and go back, then they can make more of an impact at the meet.”
In addition to swimming against Franklin Regional, a usual nonsection opponent in the past for P-T, the Warriors also added perenially strong Peters Township to their schedule to test their swimmers well before WPIALs.
“It will be a big challenge for our boys to go undefeated again, but as a team, we're going to try and keep up our winning ways,” Dave Babik said.
The Knights don't have the experience of Penn-Trafford or Franklin Regional, but some talented young swimmers could combine with Norwin's handful of returnees to make moves at the WPIAL meet.
Seniors Mike Bartolac and Mike Kaloz, junior Tyler Dempsey and sophomore Mark Patterson all made the trip to Trees Pool last year, and along with Kevin Henderson, Ronnie Dushack and Hunter McGowan, the Knights have a hard-working core that will add newcomers Eric Booth and Cole Dempsey to the mix.
“The boys relays, I really expect them to go out and qualify for WPIALs in the first meet against Mt. Pleasant,” Norwin boys coach Neil Rushnock said. “We're still down in numbers. We only have 15 boys, but we should be able to fill every event.”
Rushnock said making sure all three relays qualify is the first priority for the boys, while the Knights also would like to qualify multiple individuals for this year's WPIAL meet after Patterson was the lone individual qualifier last season.
The girls team is down in experience, through a combination of graduation and athletes electing not to swim again with the team, but it does have a small group of returners that includes senior Kayla Grudowski and juniors Casi Smith and Amanda Booth.
Hannah Rusinko will step in and likely swim distance events for the Knights, while another newcomer, Rachael Smerkar, will contribute in both freestyle and breaststroke events.
“In the practices, they've all worked very hard,” Norwin girls coach Barb Augustin said. “We're hoping to be competitive, but we don't have many seniors. It's a bit of a rebuilding year, in that sense.”
Other seniors for Norwin include Corinne Dally, Rachel Harrison, Katie Gaffney and Stephanie Smerkar, and all of them will have a chance to shine this season.
“We have a lot of swimmers right now that are around the same ability,” Augustin said. “They're working hard. We're hoping for good things, and they'll all get a chance to compete this year.”
Matt Grubba is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-388-5830 or firstname.lastname@example.org.