2016 Girls Swim Coach of the Year: Shaffer gets most out of young Falcons

Steve Shaffer

STRASBURG – For Central swim coach Steve Shaffer, as well as his counterparts at Stonewall Jackson and Strasburg high schools, each winter sports season presents the same challenge.

Shenandoah County high school swimming is a small program. The three public high schools share a single indoor facility at the Signal Knob Recreation Center, located in Strasburg in the northernmost part of the county, and are limited to three lanes in the pool during any given practice. As a result, Central’s swimmers get four hours of practice time a week, Shaffer said, compared to the 10 to 15 hours that some of the larger high school swimming programs in the state enjoy.

“I’ve always said that we’re probably the most productive out of those four hours out of anyone in the state,” Shaffer said last week. “I get as much out of the kids as I can.”

For Shaffer, the Northern Virginia Daily’s 2016 Girls Swimming Coach of the Year, that meant a top 10 finish at the Group 2A state swim meet for both the boys and girls teams, as well as the county’s first individual state swim champion in sophomore Ashley Funkhouser (50-yard freestyle).

The Falcons were young across the board in 2015-16, and the girls squad featured just one senior (Lexi Keller) and one junior (Sydney Crosser) while composed of eight combined freshmen and sophomores. But even with that youthfulness, Central’s goal has remained the same since Shaffer took over the program five years ago – continue to build on the foundation of success that was planted years before. He said the leadership of his two upperclassmen and Funkhouser helped Central’s girls continue that trend this winter.

“When a freshman girl coming in can look to an Ashley or look to the two older girls, Syd Crosser and Lexi Keller, they’re the mother hens that let the younger ones know that greatness is out there, work with us and we’ll take you to the promised land, which is the state meet,” Shaffer said.

The journey to that state meet, where seven Falcon girls eventually got to compete, actually began in the offseason, when Shaffer worked with Central athletic director Kenny Rinker to schedule two new invitationals – one to open the season at the Christiansburg Aquatic Center, the same facility that hosts the state meet, and another at Fork Union Military Academy.

“The kids who were swimming their first year had that eye-opening experience that this is an amazing pool (in Christiansburg) and I wanna be back here,” Shaffer said. “… Our kids weren’t out there necessarily winning events but they were seeing that there is some great competition out there. Having the opportunity to work with our athletic director and getting in some of those meets really benefited the kids.”

Still, Shaffer said it took most of the season for some of the girls to develop, but he added by the Shenandoah County meet in early February that swimming newcomers such as Casey Wenn, Carly Boyce and Winter Ruhling “were ready to break out.”

Wenn ended up joining Funkhouser with four county championship medals in the meet, but the Falcons’ shot at defending their title took a hit when one girl lost track of the meet’s progress and missed her race, disqualifying her from the competition, Shaffer said. Central lost the girls title to Strasburg by five points.

“It’s a learning process and any time we’re dealing with kids … it’s what comes with the territory,” said Shaffer, who is also the president of the Shenandoah County Swim League.

Central went on to place sixth at the Region 2A East meet and sent seven total girls to Christiansburg. Funkhouser, in addition to her championship in the 50 free, placed third in the 100 free at the state meet. Wenn placed 15th in the 50 free, while Crosser was 12th in the 100 breaststroke.

Those three joined Keller, Ruhling, Boyce and Jordan Hall as members of Central’s three relay teams, two of which – the 200 free and the 400 free – earn all-state honors with top-eight finishes.

Central’s boys enjoyed even more success, as eight swimmers – Dean Woodwell, Ethan Coleman, Aaron Waller, Graham Wenn, Josiah Selby, Cliff Croom, Jeremy Racey and Jonah Neri – made the trip to Christiansburg after a fifth-place team finish in the regional meet. The Falcons’ boys placed seventh in the state.

“The exciting thing there is that we qualified a swimmer in every event (at the state meet),” Shaffer said.

Woodwell earned medals in the 100 fly (sixth) and 200 IM (seventh), while Selby (seventh, 100 fly) and Coleman (eighth, 200 free) joined him as individual all-state performers.

Shaffer said the senior trio of Coleman, Selby and Waller – who swam the opening leg of Central’s all-state 200 free and 400 free relays – will be missed.

“The bar was raised high, but these three boys that came out of (the) Edinburg (summer swim program) were the nucleus of the team over the course of all of the past five years,” Shaffer said. “It’s gonna be tough to fill those shoes.”

Contact staff writer Brad Fauber at 540-465-5137 ext. 161, or bfauber@nvdaily.com