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Former Highlands swimming great returns to roots

| Sunday, Jan. 20, 2013, 12:16 a.m.
Erica Hilliard | Valley News Dispatc
Highlands High School varsity swim coach Beth Brancato pauses for a portrait during practice on Wednesday, January 9, 2013.

For former All-American swimmer Beth Brancato, home is where her heart is.

Brancato had an illustrious prep and college swimming career and found herself wanting to give back to the sport, so she got into coaching.

It just so happens her first head coaching position is at her alma mater.

Brancato, 34, is coaching the Highlands boys and girls teams this season, roaming the edges of the same pool in which she broke numerous records.

“My whole family is here, so this just made sense to me,” said Brancato, who's maiden name is Karaica.

One of the A-K Valley's top swimmers in the mid-1990s, Brancato won the WPIAL and PIAA 50-yard freestyle as a senior. She also won the WPIAL 100-yard freestyle.

Her records of 23.63 seconds in the 50 free and 52.50 in the 100 free remain unbroken.

High school success led her to the University of Nebraska, where she continued her assault on the record books.

At Nebraska, she helped the 200- and 400-yard freestyle relay teams to records that still stand. She also has the second-fastest time in school history in the 50 free.

A three-time All-American, she was invited to swim for the U.S. National Team in 1999.

“In high school, I felt I could compete in all of my events,” Brancato said. “The coach puts you in everything and you learn what kind of events you should specialize in.”

Now, Brancato is on the other side of the water, bestowing her knowledge on a new batch of swimmers.

“I missed being around swimming and I felt that it was the right time,” she said. “I've had kids, wanted to spend time with my family and had other priorities in life. Now my kids are older and involved in their own things.”

Brancato had never coached at the high school level before. Her only coaching experience came from her days with the Nebraska Husker Aquatics club when she was a student coach.

Enrollment is up for the girls team at Highlands, while the boys have just seven on the roster.

Highlands' team captain Carly Boda said Brancato has been invaluable to her development.

“She's an amazing coach, she really is,” Boda said. “She's very good with us and pushes us. Our practices are disciplined and tough.”

Senior captain Cole Emanuelson reiterated Boda's stance.

“It certainly makes you feel confident when your coach says you're doing well, when your coach was a good swimmer herself,” Emanuelson said.

So far, the swimmers have responded to their new leader. Brancato said she's received a lot of positive feedback from parents and swimmers.

Former Kittanning swimmer Tom Mechling is Brancato's assistant coach.

“I feel like what helps our swimmers is the experience and the knowledge that we can share with them,” Brancato said. “We've tried to pass along our techniques and our training methods, and the kids seem to respect us a lot. They're very receptive.”

The watchful eyes of Brancato and Mechling can be intimidating.

“Sometimes when I screw up, she'll correct us,” Boda said. “She just wants us to do our best, have a good mentality and picture your race. She wants us to think that we'll win every time we swim and always wants our best.”

Emanuelson said the team has a friendly contest to best their coach.

“One of my teammates has a goal to beat her time from high school, it gives motivation to keep getting better,” Emanuelson said.

Now that Brancato is back in the fold, she reassured her commitment to the program. However, family comes first.

She and her husband, Keith, have a son (Christian, 7) and a daughter (Casey, 4).

“It takes a few years to build a foundation for your program,” Brancato said. “I'm not going to rule out a long tenure as coach, but I do have my family and would never miss out on my kids' events.”

Jesse Huba is a freelance writer.

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