Traditionally, seniors lead their team in and out of the pool, but for the Hickman and Rock Bridge swimming teams, an influx of ability from underclassmen has evened the talent across all the grades.
With freshmen and sophomores dominating the rosters, the younger swimmers are working hard this season to keep their teams afloat.
The young teams will compete in Columbia for the first time this season at 4 p.m. today at Hickman. Blue Springs South, Mary Institute Country Day and Columbia Independent School also will compete. The amount of talent through all the grades has removed many of the differences teams normally have between older and younger athletes.
“With us we don’t really differentiate like, ‘Oh, you’re a sophomore so (you’re worse),’” Rock Bridge sophomore Meghan Kurzejeski said.
The underclassmen’s strength makes it easier for the seniors and juniors to lead and encourage the new swimmers, said John Hamilton, who coaches Hickman and Rock Bridge.
Hamilton said the freshmen and sophomores are experienced, despite being younger.
“Those girls have been swimming since they were little bitty kids, but they’re on our team for the first time this year,” Hamilton said. “They’ve really been a big boost and I think it’s been inspiring to some of the other girls. Because of that, I see a real positive work ethic and atmosphere … and I see some confidence.”
Hickman junior Chelsea Laun said she appreciates how much experience the new swimmers bring to the teams.
“I think a lot the younger kids have been competitive for a long time, so really it’s not any different (that they’re younger),” Laun said. “I think they’re just as good as me and a lot of them are better than me, so I think we’re all pretty equal.”
Three Hickman newcomers, sophomores Claire Piester and Julie Schenker and freshman Mary Sheahen, have made impacts, Hamilton said.
Piester has qualified for the state championship meet in the 300 breaststroke relay and the 900 progression relay. Schenker and Sheahen compete with Piester on the 200 and 400 medley relay, and Schenker has won the 100 freestyle.
Hickman has gotten good times from its 13 freshmen, but getting them into meets has been Hamilton’s biggest difficulty.
“Some of them just have to wait their turn (to compete) because they have some upperclassmen that are keeping them from getting in a lot of meets,” Hamilton said.
Occasionally, Hickman will swim without its strongest lineup to get as many swimmers into competition as possible. Hamilton said it has been difficult because Hickman has competed in more invitational meets, where the lineup is limited.
“I think right now it’s more important to get these kids experience and make them feel good about the work they’re putting in with some payoff,” Hamilton said.
As juniors, Laun and Shallan Garrett are two of Hickman’s stronger upperclassmen. Garrett concentrates on the 500 freestyle, and Laun is a sprinter competing in the 100 breaststroke and butterfly. Both said they try to lead by example.
“Our team is definitely strong as far as having leadership,” Garrett said. “I think it really does come from the juniors where we try to take initiative because we know what’s going on. You try and dictate what’s going on with the team and how everything’s run to set the standards for younger kids.”
Kurzejeski competes for Rock Bridge’s equally young team in the 200 and 500 freestyle.
“(Kurzejeski) has really found herself this year,” Hamilton said. “She has decided, ‘I’m really going to get at it this year,’ and ‘I’m going to really work hard’ and because of that she’s doing really well in the 500.”
The Bruins have a group of strong upperclassmen as well. Junior Stephanie Crowe is Rock Bridge’s top sprinter in the 100 breaststroke and backstroke, and Shannon Miller has been the Bruins’ dependable senior.
“Shannon’s our do-everything girl,” Hamilton said. “The 200, the 500, the backstroke, relays, she can do it all.”
Hickman’s seniors have been consistent this season, which is what Hamilton wants.
“We just want to see a steady improvement and consistency,” he said. “The thing I don’t want to see is where we’ve had a good meet one weekend and then just did a backslide and just completely had the wheels fall off.”
Sarah Massey gets closer to the state qualifying time in the 500 freestyle with each meet and Sarah Scroggs competes in sprints, distance freestyle, the 100 butterfly and the 200 individual medley.
“Those two girls are emblematic of what our seniors have done for us,” Hamilton said. “Anytime you have seniors there’s a little more composure, a little more steadiness they can offer.”
The teams are coming off two strong meets and are looking forward to their first competition at home today, Hamilton said.
Kurzejeski is happy to compete at home, too, but for a different reason.
“Our pool’s a lot warmer,” she said.