The loss of a coach often is one of the most trying obstacles any sports team faces.
That’s probably the case for the Northshore High swim team, which for years had been one of the top Division I programs in the state under longtime coaching icon Ed Kelly.
When Kelly died last year, he gave way to one of his former year-round swimmers — Angelica Smith. The young coach was announced as Kelly’s replacement at Northshore shortly after his death, and Smith quickly learned how difficult it can be to meld teenage personalities on the deck.
“Coach’s main goal was always to get sportsmanship across, and the competition and the winning came with it,” said Smith, who swam for Kelly’s year-round Hurricane Swim Club for six years before graduating from high school. “The past couple of years, with him sick, he couldn’t keep tabs on that probably like he wanted to. (It began to show.) At the beginning of last season, (many of the Northshore swimmers) didn’t want to be in the pool with one another.”
Things have changed in the past year.
Smith incorporated dry-land sessions into the Panthers’ training, which has fostered “team building,” both she and her prep swimmers said. They’ve endured change together, grown together, and once again are one of the most competitive teams in Louisiana.
Case in point — Northshore has victories over perennial Division II champ St. Scholastica this year, as well as Division I stalwarts Dominican and Slidell. The boys team, though only nine members strong, came within three points of beating annual Division I contender St. Paul’s in a meet two weeks ago.
The 2014 results to date have Smith and the Panthers holding out for big things when they host the St. Tammany Parish Swim Meet on Oct. 21 at Cross Gates. Shortly thereafter, the Greater New Orleans Metro Championships will take place Oct. 31-Nov. 1 at UNO. The state championships return to Sulphur this year on Nov. 21-22.
It’s not as if Northshore fell off the map, however — far from it. The girls finished third in the 2013 state meet and the boys were ninth. The girls also finished as runners-up to St. Joseph’s in both 2012 and 2011, after Northshore won a girls state title in 2010. Twelve swimmers have qualified for state so far in 2014.
But first things first, and for Northshore, that starts with aiming for solid performances at the parish meet. Smith said that if her team can beat the likes of Mandeville (another Division I powerhouse which was second in state last year) at that meet, then it’s a true test of where her program currently is.
“I wouldn’t say it’s a rivalry between us and Mandeville, but there’s a lot of competition,” Smith said. “They’re a big team and they have a lot of great swimmers. But our swimmers, what they may lack in experience, they make up for in talent. Our top kids are mostly juniors and seniors, but we have a lot of really good younger swimmers too.”
Team captain Sarah Barakat (a long-distance specialist) was an eighth grader when Northshore won a girls’ title in 2010. She knows what it feels like to finish second at parish, metro and at state, however, and says the Panthers have a chance to improve upon those standings.
“We have a lot of new swimmers and they’re doing great and will keep growing,” she said. “This year at state, and metros, and at parish, we’ll have swimmers like freshman Maddie Byrd, and junior Katherine Simmers who should have great individual times for the girls.”
Simmers (who’s qualified for state in the 200-yard freestyle and 100-yard butterfly,) said the camaraderie of prep swimming fosters growth in the pool.
“High school swimming is unique because it gives you an opportunity, compared to year-round, to spend (a more concentrated amount of time) with your teammates,” Simmers said. “You rely more on your teammates for support. Coach Kelly’s death, it brought us closer. We realized how much we needed one another for support.”
Boys captain Jacob Sterbenz already has punched his ticket to state in the 50 and 100-freestyle events. He echoed Simmers’ sentiment.
“Things have definitely been more together for us this year than last year,” the senior sprinter said. “It is team building. It’s keeping everyone’s spirits up, and the team is coming together well.”
Junior Ben Rowley agreed. He said he and his Northshore teammates can’t worry about state however. Not just yet, because after all, some of the state’s toughest competition lies in the parish and metro meets that precede Sulphur.
“I try not to think about anything except the meet in front of me,” he said. “I know who I’m going against, whether it’s in parish, metro, or state. I’ve been swimming against them for years. You just have to go out there and do it.”
That’s very close to what Smith is saying, as well, so Northshore’s coach and swimmers seem to be on the same page as the most-competitive part of the season approaches.
“Parish is our main focus, first and foremost,” Smith said. “That’s the most attainable (goal) for now. We’re hosting it at our pool.”
There will be new blocks and everything. I’m excited to see what happens.”