2017 Swim Coach of the Year: Shaffer, Falcons continue to build on success

Steve Shaffer

STRASBURG – Each high school winter sports season, the swimming coaches of the three Shenandoah County high schools face an identical dilemma.

With just one indoor facility available within the county, all three schools are forced to share a three-lane pool. Practices are limited to just four hours per week for each team, whereas some of the teams that they compete against may get triple that amount of pool time during the season.

But Central does have the upper hand over Stonewall Jackson and Strasburg in one respect – Falcons head coach Steve Shaffer is able to draw swimmers from two competitive teams from Woodstock and Edinburg in the Shenandoah County Swim League each year.

“One of the successes of Central’s team is the fact that Edinburg in the summer and Woodstock in the summer have been very competitive against each other, so that competitiveness has benefited both summer teams, and consequently they come together to form the Central team in the winter,” Shaffer said recently. “Strasburg, unfortunately, doesn’t have that. The southern end of the county just doesn’t have that dynamic within the teams. So that’s one thing that really has benefited me, that the kids really have worked hard because of the competitiveness between Edinburg and Woodstock.”

Shaffer, The Northern Virginia Daily’s 2017 Swim Coach of the Year, and the Falcons continued to reap the rewards of that this past season. Central’s boys and the girls squads each finished seventh in the Virginia High School League Group 2A state meet in Christiansburg last month, and each sent a total of six swimmers to the event. The two teams also combined to set 14 new school records out of 22 events.

Led by junior Ashley Funkhouser’s state titles in the girls 50-yard freestyle and 100 free, the Falcons earned all-state medals in nine events (five in the girls and four in the boys). In what can be viewed as a testament to the family atmosphere that Shaffer said has emerged within Central’s program in recent years, the Falcons earned all-state medals in five of the six relay events.

“Not only do they spend so much time together but (it’s) the boys and girls together, so that helps, I believe, with the dynamics because all girls is not always easy and all guys is not always easy in a different way,” said Shaffer, who started the area’s first summer swim program in 1993. “The fact that they’re all together, it really becomes a family.”

The girls team in particular, Shaffer said, has become a tight-knit group in recent years, and the head coach credited senior Sydney Crosser with being one of the pioneers of that unification process. Combining that camaraderie with Funkhouser’s swimming prowess has powered Central’s girls to back-to-back top 10 finishes in the state.

In addition to Funkhouser’s two gold medals at the state meet this winter, freshman Anna Jeffrey placed sixth in the 100 backstroke, and Crosser, Funkhouser, Jeffrey, Carly Boyce, Audrey Johnston and Winter Ruhling teamed up to finish in fifth place in the 200 medley, 200 free and 400 free relays.

“The girls right from the get-go are competitive and when Ashley’s here she’s certainly leading the girls lane, and all the girls work hard to chase after her and have great respect for the … height of the bar she sets,” Shaffer said.

On the boys side, junior Dean Woodwell, who was the Bull Run District Swimmer of the Year and set new school records in the 200 free, 200 individual medley and 100 fly, led the way with a pair of all-state finishes in the 200 free (fourth) and 100 fly (seventh). Fellow junior Graham Wenn, who began competing in the offseason with a swim team in Harrisonburg, rose to a seventh-place finish in the 50 free this winter.

Those two juniors, plus sophomore Jeremy Racey (who set a new Central record in the 100 backstroke) and seniors Cliff Croom and Jonah Neri, helped Shaffer rebuild the boys relay teams around Woodwell after losing three relay swimmers to graduation after last season. The Falcons’ 200 free and 400 free relays placed fifth and seventh at the state meet this season, respectively, and the 200 medley relay team of Racey, Croom, Wenn and Neri set a new school record in January.

“We had three solid male seniors that graduated last year that were all the core of the relays for a lot of years, and losing three-quarters of relays, I wasn’t sure what to expect this year,” Shaffer said. “But the extra work of Graham and … Jeremy and then the seniors Jonah Neri and Cliff Croom, they really kept the relays together.”

The success experienced by both the boys and girls teams is allowing Shaffer to draw more interest in Central’s swim program, as well. He said he kept 29 swimmers on this year’s roster, an above average number, and added that the participation level for the Falcons is “definitely increasing.”

With just three seniors set to graduate this spring, the Falcons figure to be in a good position to further that success next season.

“I’m just really proud of the whole team. Through the hard work, the commitment, the dedication that all the kids have put in, I think the success speaks for itself,” Shaffer said. “It’s the kids that have put in the work and done the job. They’re believing in me and what I do as a coach and I just appreciate their efforts and I’m proud of all their accomplishments, from state champion Ashley to the kids who are still just coming up.”

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