New coach welcomes 4 returning WPIAL qualifiers to Thomas Jefferson swim team
John Penn is in his first year as head coach of the Thomas Jefferson swimming and diving program.
But he is a most familiar face at TJ.
Penn, a 1977 Thomas Jefferson High School and 1981 University of Pittsburgh graduate, was a longtime assistant at TJ before taking over as head coach.
“We welcome every student who wants to be a member of the swim team,” Penn said. “All we request is they give their best effort each day, and we as coaches will do everything we can to teach them. In 15 years we have never cut an athlete from our program.
“We make every effort as a coaching staff to make each athlete realize their true potential, just like every coach within the Thomas Jefferson athletic department. We are not just coaching a sport, we are providing (student-athletes) with life skills to use after graduation.”
Penn swam both in league and recreation competition in high school since Thomas Jefferson did not establish a varsity swimming program until 1999.
“I am the lone remaining parent from a group of interested parents who worked with the school district to establish a swim team (in 1999),” said Penn, who is a quality manager for Eastman Chemical Company in Jefferson Hills.
TJ's rookie head coach believes the strength of this year's squad is its experience, led by four returning WPIAL Class AA qualifiers — sophomores Jennifer Hill and Megan Organist, senior Miranda Mihal and junior Beatrix Kovacs.
Hill qualified for two WPIAL individual events — the 100-yard breaststroke and 200-yard individual medley — in her first-ever varsity swim meet last year.
She broke her own school record in the 100 breaststoke event at the WPIAL finals.
“We have a lot of experienced depth on the team, along with many new athletes who have swimming backgrounds,” Penn said. “Our returning WPIAL qualifiers, along with (our) many seniors, will help drive the team.”
Along with Mihal, senior leadership is provided by Calla Boyer, Marie Miller, Michelle O'Brien, Lisa Quashnock, Danielle Smith, Abby Stedding and Anna Stedding, along with Evan Haythorn, the only senior on the boys' team.
“We have a lot of returning experience, which is one of our strengths, and a team that bonds well during our training and our travels,” Penn said. “They drive each other to improve and succeed.
“Our returning WPIAL qualifiers have a lot of versatility, which allows us to vary lineups in several ways.”
TJ's junior class is represented by Kovacs, Olivia Airhart, Madison Gray, Dellon Karuga, Jonathan Kelly, Brett Smith and Dan Sykes; while Hill, Organist, Baylee Cuppett, Don Beattie, Keith Cotter, David Etzi, Tom Skoff and Ben Thornton are sophomores.
Top freshman prospects in the program include Emily Bond, Megan Campano, Sadie Fry, Shannon Gallagher, Lisa Richard, Miranda Zarlino, Charles Johnson, Zach Lesutis and Sam Organist.
There are 33 athletes in TJ's varsity swimming program this year, including 20 on the girls' squad.
Thomas Jefferson practices and hosts its home meets at nearby Elizabeth Forward High School.
“Together, each team has developed a great deal of mutual respect. (We) support each other in whatever way we can, which is great to see in high school athletics,” Penn said. “We have a limited amount of practice time given our pool constraints, so we have to make each yard or set during practice be efficient and meaningful. But we don't view that as an adversity; we use it to challenge us to be better.
The TJ swim team is scheduled to compete tonight, Thursday, at Chartiers Valley.
“We do not have an established feeder program into our varsity program,” Penn said. “So we have to do a fair amount of basic conditioning early that other teams already have in place. This just means it takes us a little longer to establish (our) base conditioning.
“We have always had strong support from the TJ athletic department, the administrators and the school board. In return, we provide the district with a strong athletic program for both the boys' and girls' teams, and one which historically has a strong academic performance.”
Penn's assistants are Jesse Durham and Amy Wroblewski.
Wroblewski served as Thomas Jefferson's head coach last season. Her primary focus centers on the TJ divers.
Wrobleski is a graduate of Brentwood High School, where she was a four-year varsity letterwinner in swimming and diving, and Kent State University, where she also was a gymnast.
“She brings a strong diving background to the team and has trained multiple WPIAL diving qualifiers, and also TJ's first female state (diving) qualifier last year,” Penn said.
Samantha Etzi, a senior in 2012-13, placed ninth at last year's WPIAL Class AA girls' diving championships to secure a berth in the PIAA finals.
TJ's diving specialists this season are O'Brien, Airhart and Campano on the girls' team; and Etzi, Smith and Johnson on the boys' team.
Durham was a three-year letterman in swimming and diving at South Park High School.
“Jesse began coaching with us last year and brings an energetic training atmosphere to the program,” Penn said.
Ray Fisher is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at 412-388-5820 or firstname.lastname@example.org.