One year ago, the parents and students looking to start a swim team at Verona High School seemed to be swimming against the tide. As a pay-to-play sport, the swim team would have to self-fund a budget that would pay for pool time and a coach, an $18,000 challenge. They didn’t know how many swimmers would turn out. But they thought they could do it and their persistence finally convinced the Board of Education to add a swim team to Verona’s winter sports lineup. Verona’s first school swim team did Verona proud.
The team started as a mix of swimmers, football players, cheerleaders, tennis players and runners. An interest meeting had yielded 26 potential members, which dwindled to 20, and then went back up to 22. There were big differences in swimming levels and abilities, but they were a team from the first day and stayed that way throughout the season. Three mornings a week they made a 6 a.m. trek to the Caldwell Community Center for practice, swam from 6 to 7 a.m. and still made it to school on time. When they weren’t in the pool, they had dry land practice the other two days. They participated in fundraising. They never gave up, even when outnumbered and outraced. And at every stroke and kick and flip turn, they celebrated their teammates.
Before their first meet against Millburn, the team had had just three weeks of practice in the pool and in the weight room. Anyone who has ever competed against Millburn in a sport knows they’re in for a challenge, and that first swim meet was no different. Verona was outnumbered, and Millburn was a seasoned team. Verona lost the meet, but no observer would have known that: The enthusiasm among Verona fans, the swimmers cheering each other on, and the parents screaming, more than compensated for the placement in the races. The energy at that first meet was overwhelming and it carried the team through the season.
It carried them through swimming against teams that had more than twice their numbers, like Montclair and Caldwell. It carried them through challenging meets like the boys swimming against Seton Hall and the girls against Mount Saint Dominic Academy. But all through the season, VHS swim’s supporters watched as swimmers cut their times, refined their strokes, improved flip turns and found the magic in just the right mix for relays. Verona’s swimmers experienced for themselves want happens when the whole crowd, regardless of the team they support, cheers for the last swimmer to finish a race and encourages a struggling swimmer to finish the last lap. This is what swim teams are made of and Verona High School is now no different.
Through the season, the team saw Kelly Nulty and Killian Blitz consistently win events and inspire their teammates; Blitz managed to complete the 100 Freestyle in less than a minute–a personal best for him. Alex McLaughlin demonstrated his talents in the 500, as did Jamie Hoimark; both making the 20-lap event look easy. Harmonie Chang and Jenna Gabbe had consistent strong showings in their individual events and Abby Bermeo took 10 seconds off her 100 breast stroke time. Will Sheehan dominated in the 50 freestyle–a true sprinter–and Zack Balogh and Gianna Mattia developed an affinity for the 100 butterfly. These are only a few of the season’s highlights- the best showing are from the teams Twitter feed.
The final meet was against a team well matched to Verona in size and ability, Montclair Kimberley Academy. Verona won the first few events and, for the first time all season, it seemed like Verona had a chance of winning the whole meet. The races were close, some were too close to call from the stands. In some cases Verona pulled ahead, and in others VHS held its own despite being down a few swimmers to the flu. The boys meet came down to the last relay and in the end, Verona lost by 8 points. The girls lost by 16 points.
To other teams in other sports, that might have been discouraging, even devastating. But for Verona’s swimmers, who had lost by more than 60 points at the beginning of the season, it was a Cinderella ending. They made it to the ball, they danced and they will be back for more next year. All but one member of the team were underclassmen and two freshmen, Nulty and Blitz, made such waves that they are contenders for Rookie of the Year in the New Jersey.
“I think we had a great season,” says Jeremy Zak, the coach for both the girls and the boys. “We really created a culture that inspired these student-athletes to improve themselves and to care about each other. That’s all I could ask for in a first-year program. If we build upon what we did this year, we should see many successes in the future. With the depth that we have in our sophomore and freshman classes, we should be optimistic of what the coming years have for us.”
As the season concluded, the team celebrated Alex McLaughlin, the only senior. McLaughlin consistently amazed his team by making the 500 Freestyle (20 laps) look easy, and then in the next boys event swam a 50 Freestyle in the relay. Bright red, but determined and always in good spirits, Alex was celebrated by his teammates on Senior Night.