By Jeff Nations
To hear Central High School swim coach Steve Shaffer tell it, this season of change for the Falcons was ... well, it was pretty much sink or swim.
The newly restructured six-classification system implemented by the Virginia High School League for this year meant Central had to adjust to a new level of competition and new rivalries, all while trying to get pool time in the midst of one of the harshest winters in recent memory.
Through it all, Shaffer's team did indeed stay afloat and then some. Central's boys team won the Shenandoah County meet, took second behind only perennial power George Mason in the Bull Run District meet, came right back to win the Conference 28 Championship meet, came back with another solid effort against tough competition at the Region 3A East meet and finally ended the season with two top-12 finishers in state competition.
All in all, that's plenty for Shaffer to be proud of this season. For his efforts, Shaffer earned his second consecutive honor as The Northern Virginia Daily's 2013-2014 Boys Swim Coach of the Year.
"It was definitely a transitional year with all the changes with the VHSL," Shaffer said. "We weren't even sure at the start of the season how to qualify for regionals and states, so we were kind of flying blind for awhile."
Shaffer did know he had a solid nucleus to build around, led by senior Jonathan Feaster and junior Trevor Wolf. Those two, along with a few others, helped set the tone for Central all season long.
"Those are the guys that set the bar high for you," Shaffer said. "So many of the other swimmers go chasing after them."
Much of the chasing for Shaffer involved pool time, as persistent bad weather during the winter months wiped out practice after practice and more than a few meets. It left Shaffer wondering how well his team would fare when the competition started heating up late in the season.
"Even before Christmas we lost two of our dual meets that were not rescheduled," Shaffer said. "Normally we swim about 10 meets before we hit the championship cycle. We only swam six meets this year. It's a credit to the guys we were as successful as we were."
Though it might not have counted as "big" competition, the Shenandoah County meet showcased the Falcons' impressive depth as they knocked off rivals Strasburg and Stonewall Jackson at Signal Knob Recreation Center. Wolf (50 and 100-yard freestyle), Feaster (100 butterfly), Aaron Waller (200 free), Ethan Coleman (500 free) and Taishi Ukai (100 breaststroke) all picked up individual wins, and Central swept all three relays.
Four days later, the Falcons managed a number of second-place finishes in their runner-up effort to George Mason.
From there, the real postseason -- the eliminations meets -- began with the brand-new Conference 28 meet. Facing largely unknown opposition in new conference rivals John Champe, William Monroe and Loudoun Valley, Central's boys rose to the challenge on the strength of two individual wins each by Wolf and Feaster, another first from Coleman in the 400 free and a clean sweep of the relays. That meet might have been the highlight of the year for Shaffer.
"Just the depth and the way it all came together, when we put up three solid relays at the conference meet," Shaffer said. "The two Loudoun schools threw the best they had at us, but we were still able to pull it out."
There was little time to celebrate, not with another test -- the 3A East Region meet at Richmond's Collegiate Aquatic Center -- awaiting the following week.
"All of them scored points, all of them contributed," Shaffer said of the conference championship. "But the way they followed that up the next week at the 3A East Regional, which is effectively half the teams in the state -- they got to swim in a phenomenal pool and the kids' times came down again."
Only Wolf (50 and 100 free) and Feaster (100 breast) made it through the rigorous state qualifying standards, and they finished the season on a strong note in the Class 3A state meet at the Christiansburg Aquatic Center.
Wolf, who didn't swim the 100 free, finished ninth in the state in the 50. Feaster, who traded the school record in the butterfly during the season with Waller (who currently holds it), was 12th in the 100 breast.
"We started out with some really good kids that worked hard," Shaffer said. "If not for all the snow and all the missed practices, I felt we could have done even better."
Contact Sports Editor Jeff Nations at 540-465-5137 ext. 161, or firstname.lastname@example.org>