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North Hills swimmers up intensity

| Friday, Feb. 24, 2017, 11:00 p.m.
Louis Raggiunti | For the Tribune-Review
North Hills' Mary Claire Smith swims the freestyle against Seneca Valley on Jan. 5, 2017, at North Hills.

Each of the five years Liz Cleary has coached the North Hills swim team she has turned up the intensity.

Senior Mary Claire Smith was scared before her swim practice four years ago about how tough it would be, but the experience wasn't as bad as the expectation.

“It wasn't hard enough,” Smith said of both her own effort and practices in general. “I feel like there could have been something else in there.”

Each would improve in the coming years. The next season Cleary picked up the pace and so did the swimmers. The trajectory has continued to the present.

“We've been doing crazy fast times just in practice,” Smith said. “And I'm like ‘woah, where'd this come from?' ”

In a season when many of the WPIAL qualifying times have become markedly faster than the previous campaign, Cleary's increased workload and heightened expectations have helped the Indians avoid a massive dropoff in results. North Hills will send 11 competitors, eight returners, from a 43-person roster to Trees Pool at Pitt on Thursday and Friday for the WPIAL championships.

“I'm proud of where the program's grown,” Cleary said. “When I first started, I had a breakout kid, but I feel like the whole team is experiencing success (now).”

Cleary said this is the best team she's had, with six or seven swimmers, all spread across different distances and strokes, having a legitimate shot at making states.

The established talent is in the older grades. Smith, the senior, will swim at Clarion next year, and junior Sidney Davidson advanced to the PIAA meet in 2016 in the 100-yard breaststroke.

Smith said advancing to PIAAs showed her she could work even harder and become better. Motivated to see that out, her work rate in her final high school season is greatly improved.

She bettered her qualifying time in the 100 breaststroke by 0.03 seconds and wants to improve on a ninth-place finish in the event last year.

“Seeing that those three years just went by, and this is my last year, I want to give it all that I've got and prove to me how hard I've worked,” Smith said.

Davidson and Smith are seeded seventh and 12, respectively, in the 100 breaststroke.

Smith also swims the 50 freestyle while Davidson swapped the 200 IM for the 500 free this season. They are seeded 12th and eighth in those other events, respectively.

Junior Brianna Joll also has a shot at qualifying for PIAAs. She is seeded 17th in the breaststroke.

Other Indians seeded in or near the top 10 in their races include junior Neil Wible, eighth in the 200 freestyle and fifth in the 500 freestyle; Andrew Mahoney, who is 12th in the 200 freestyle and 10th in the 100 freestyle; and junior Kevin Lovasik, seeded 15th in the 50 freestyle and sixth in the 100 freestyle.

This has been a rebuilding year for the diving team, which had a number of first-year divers and sent one person (senior Megan Busch) to the WPIAL meet.

Both Cleary and Smith said the girls 200 medley has the best shot of the North Hills relay teams to advance to states. It finished seventh at WPIALs a year ago and has a faster seed time this season.

Five North Hills relays will compete at Trees. The boys' 200 and 400 freestyle relays are seeded in the top 10.

“They're all in the hunt,” Cleary said about who will qualify for states. “It's a hard meet to try and make any strong predictions because you just don't know the talent that's going to be spread elsewhere.”

Jasper Wilson is a freelance writer.

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