By Jeff Nations - email@example.com
WINCHESTER - No, Ben Grove wasn't born in the water. It just seems like it sometimes, since the Handley senior has been around the wet stuff since his toddling days.
That's a product of having a father who has served as the Judges swim coach for the past eight years, and guides the Winchester Swim Team to boot. Tag Grove, his father, figured one of two things would happen -- Ben Grove would either love the water, or hate it.
Turns out, Grove loved it.
"He's been swimming since he was probably 6, I guess," Tag Grove said of Ben. "He was at every meet in Winchester since he was about a week old. He's always been there, it seems like."
The good news for the Judges is that Ben Grove will be around a little longer. The senior is looking to cap his final high school season with another state championship after setting a state record in the 100-meter breaststroke with a winning time of 57.77 seconds. After that, he'll be swimming collegiately somewhere -- the United States Naval Academy and Virginia Tech are two leading contenders right now, but nothing's set just yet.
At last year's state meet, Grove shaved nearly a second off his time in the preliminaries to set the new record. Tag Grove said his son was holding back just a bit for the finals, conserving his best performance for the end.
"He wasn't the top seed; he was third or fourth," Tag Grove said. "The kids that were ahead of him, we'd tracked them throughout the year and they weren't getting much faster. They stayed about the same. One good thing about Ben is in the big meets, he usually swims his best."
Ben Grove headlines a Handley boys group that lost state qualifiers Dillon Robb, Phillip Savoie and Matt Harris off last season's squad.
The girls squad also has a clear leader returning in senior Hattie Schiavone, who will swim at St. Marys next season. Schiavone competed in two individual events at states last year.
"Hattie Schiavone is swimming faster than ever," Tag Grove said.
Sophomore Sparkle Kitchin, another state qualifier last year, is also back.
The Judges have 29 swimmers this season, split nearly even with 14 boys and 15 girls.
"This is probably the best group of kids that I've coached and I've been around quite a long time," Tag Grove said. "When they come in here they come in loose, but at the same time when they get in the water they really get after it."
The numbers are up for the Falcons this season. After competing with just 10 swimmers last year, Central has 14 on the team this season.
Junior Jessica Barr, a regional qualifier last year, is a solid option in the 100 butterfly for the Falcons. She'll also pitch in on relays, where Falcons coach Laurel Sviatko hopes her team will be more competitive this season since she has the numbers to field increased entries this year.
On the boys side, Sviatko is expecting a strong season from Jonathan Neri.
"He has a lot of potential to drop his times and make a lot of improvement," Sviatko said. "He's a promising athlete."
After dropping down to Group A this season, the Falcons won't have a district or regional meet to compete in as they attempt to post state-qualifying times.
Annie Bosacco is gone, but she won't soon be forgotten by the Eagles. A standout at Clarke County, Bosacco is now swimming for George Mason. Bosacco, who finished fourth in the state in the 50 free, helped the Eagles to a share of 23rd place in last year's Group AA state meet, no small feat considering that Clarke County is a Group A program.
Among girls state qualifiers back this year are senior Stefani Bell, and juniors Brianna Harrell and Georgie Thomas. Kevin Broderick and Ben Marshall gained state experience in the boys meet last year.
"We're a smaller team this year," Clarke County coach Carol Marshall said. "We only have 23 kids on the roster, so we're going to have to work a little harder."
Broderick and Bell are team captains this season. Along with those two and the other returning state swimmers, Marshall is expecting a big season from freshman girls swimmer Marylee Gowdy.
The Colonels shouldn't be lacking for quality senior leadership this season, not with Emalee Firestein and Kevin Carver back for one more season.
Firestein, who will serve a girls co-captain along with fellow senior Brianna Shanholtzer, is looking to make her fourth consecutive state meet appearance. Last year, she took 13th in the 500 free and 14th in the 200 free in state competition.
"Emalee does a nice job for us," Colonels coach Mark Pennypacker said. "She swims the 200 and 500, but she can do others for us."
Carver, the boys' captain, tied for 10th in the state in the 50 free and also competed in the 100 free last year.
"Kevin is capable of doing all the strokes," Pennypacker said. "In fact, we may give him the opportunity to see what he can do in the backstroke and breaststroke this year."
Other state qualifiers back for James Wood this year are girls swimmers Alex Lew and Kaye Whitacre.
The Pioneers might not have had any qualifiers for last year's girls state meet, but that doesn't mean Millbrook won't have any girls with state experience this season.
Caroline Ulich, who missed last season, is back for Millbrook after competing in the state meet in both the 500 free and 200 individual medley two years ago as a freshman.
Ulich, along with senior Jenny White and talented freshman Katie Kozlowski, will be counted on to lead Millbrook's girls.
For the boys, the Pioneers must do without standout Mike Lewis, who graduated after finishing ninth in the state in the 50 free last year and helping the Pioneers field their first-ever state-qualifying relay.
Two other swimmers on that relay, Jake Rector and Josh Glander, are back and help form a nucleus that Mitchell Lippe, Thomas Northrup and Nick Patton.
"We have 40 swimmers, including 14 freshmen," Millbrook coach Eileen Span said. "It looks like overall the team is pretty strong."
Warriors coach Joe Knight had a task both unenviable and reassuring heading into this season.
"This is the first time we've ever had to make cuts when it came down to the final roster selection," said Knight, who has 40 swimmers this season. "That's always difficult because you want to encourage kids to swim."
Boys co-captains Peter Restrepo and Tanner Westmoreland, plus David Partlow, return as three-fourths of a state-qualifying relay team. Restrepo (200 free, 100 butterfly) also qualified as an individual last year.
"Peter's highly motivated," Knight said. "His goal this year is to make the top 16 in the state and he also wants to swim a school record in the 100 butterfly."
Freshman Morgan DeJong has already notched a state-qualifying swim in the 100 breast, breaking the school record.
His older sister, Megan DeJong, broke her own school mark in the 200 IM and qualified for states at the same on Thursday night.
Megan DeJong and Marina Baker both swam at states last year for Sherando's girls team.
The Generals won't have state qualifier Nicholas Lough to lead the boys team this year, but coach Warren Brill likes the effort he's seen from sophomore Dayrl Misquith so far this season.
"He can swim all the strokes," Brill said. "Right now, I'm looking at him competing in the 200 IM and 500 free."
Brill is counting on junior Paige Ritchie to lead the girls team. Ritchie's top events are the 100 back and 100 free.
Stonewall Jackson has 19 swimmers this season.
"That's exactly what we had last year," Brill said. "For the relays, we could always use more. When we swim the bigger schools, that's where we always got hammered last year."
Strasburg coach Jill Tanner has her largest team ever, with 31 swimmers on the roster. There is a catch, however.
"When the kids came out, we let them know there was a stipulation," Tanner said. "The kids know they might not be able to travel to all the road meets due to budget constraints."
Swimming at Shenandoah County public schools was nearly discontinued to save money this year, and those budgetary concerns have forced Central, Stonewall Jackson and Strasburg to pool together and travel as a group.
Senior Ethan Kibler (100 fly and 200 IM) is a top swimmer on the boys team, while senior Heather Hunt (distance) and sophomore Samantha Crisman (sprints) are expected to lead the girls squad.