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2018 Girls Swimming Coach of the Year: Falcons’ bond was stronger than ever in Shaffer’s seventh season

Steve Shaffer

STRASBURG – Throughout Steve Shaffer’s seven seasons as head coach of Central High School’s swim team, one trait has become a staple for the Falcons each season – unity.

Central, particularly in recent years, has made a point of developing a family type atmosphere each season, one that even spans the gap between the boys and girls squads. Never has that bond been stronger or more prevalent than this past winter, Shaffer said last week.

“We travel, we train, everything we do is both male and female even though it’s two separate teams in the VHSL’s eyes. We spend a lot of time together, and this group was even closer,” said Shaffer, The Northern Virginia Daily’s 2018 Girls Swimming Coach of the Year.

“The friendships and the families seemed even stronger this year, a lot of it because we brought a lot of these kids up from the grass roots.”

About a third of Central’s swimmers this past season were those who hadn’t swum competitively before reaching high school, said Shaffer, whose girls team placed seventh in the Region 2A/2B Championships and eighth in the VHSL Class 2 State Championships, and the boys fifth and 10th, respectively.

Shaffer’s direction has helped spur the development of some of those young swimmers – the Falcons swept the Shenandoah County Championship over rivals Stonewall Jackson and Strasburg again in 2018 – but the head coach added that those same swimmers also saw “work ethic and a great attitude modeled every day” from seniors Ashley Funkhouser and Dean Woodwell.

Central’s younger swimmers also got some valuable pool time when thrust into action due to injuries to some of the team’s stars. Funkhouser, a three-time state champ, missed three weeks of the season with a shoulder injury in January. Woodwell – the 2017 Bull Run District Boys Swimmer of the Year – missed the entire season due to a broken ankle suffered during football season. Senior Graham Wenn, who stepped in as the boys’ No. 1 swimmer in Woodwell’s absence and earned all-state honors in the 100-yard freestyle, suffered his own shoulder injury and missed a chunk of time during the season.

“Consequently, yes, a number of the younger swimmers had to step up and that opened up doors and opportunities for them on relays that they wouldn’t have had without some of that misfortune,” Shaffer said.

Central’s girls overcame Funkhouser’s absence to narrowly edge Strasburg, 117-112, for the county title on Jan. 19.

Funkhouser returned in time for the postseason and was the only Central girl to qualify individually for the state meet, though the Falcons did also send all three girls relay teams to Richmond. Shaffer noted that under previous VHSL state-qualifying standards – the league tightened them this season – four or five girls would’ve been representing Central in individual events at the state meet.

Funkhouser ended her stellar career with all-state performances in the 50 free (fifth, 25.41 seconds) and the 100 free (sixth, 55.97). She also teamed up with senior Darden Lear, junior Carly Boyce and sophomores Audrey Johnston and Anna Jeffrey to help Central’s girls 200 free and 400 free relays to seventh-place finishes.

Shaffer said Boyce continues to show improvement each season.

“You can’t ever go without mentioning her,” Shaffer said. “She certainly has won her share of county championships over the years and been a large contributor on relays all the years she’s been here.”

Shaffer praised Johnston for stepping in as the girls’ top breaststroke swimmer following the graduation of Sydney Crosser, and he added that freshman Emily Bowman worked hard while doing well in the distance events and contributing to a 200 medley relay team that placed 10th in the state meet.

Shaffer said that next season he expects to see another strong crop of rising ninth graders join the ranks of Central’s varsity team. Many of those could take a path similar to juniors Jeremy Racey – a state qualifier in two individual events – and Roberto Falzarano, who each had not swum competitively before joining Central’s boys swim team, Shaffer said.

“That’s the exciting thing, is kids come out and they like the sport,” Shaffer said. “It’s not for everyone but if you love being in the water then you eventually, through guidance, you figure it out.”