When the St. Scholastica Academy swim team began practicing for the upcoming season two weeks ago, there were about three dozen swimmers in the pool at Tchefuncta Country Club.
There was nothing unusual about that — not for a successful program such as SSA.
What was different, however, was the lack of some familiar faces to the local swimming scene. Gone were 12 seniors; eight of them who scored at the Division II championship last year while leading the Doves to their third consecutive state title. Gone was longtime stalwart Kristen Jennings, who won the 100-yard backstroke last year. Gone was team leader Emily Prieto, who finished third in the 50 and 100 freestyle events. Gone were Margaret Eckert, Gabby Regard, Virginia Stewart — the list goes on.
Remaining, however, is as solid a nucleus as one will find at a Division II program in the state. There’s Madeleine Rawls, who was a state champion last year in the 200 individual medley and the 100 breaststroke. Also returning is Lindsey Parkins, who was third in the 100 breaststroke and 200 IM; and Brittany Pierce, who as an eighth-grader, was second in the 500 free and third in the 200 free at state.
All three claimed places on the New Orleans Advocate’s All-Metro Swim Team in 2013. And along with the rest of the talented SSA squad, they are aiming for a “four-peat” this season, which ends at the state championships in November in Sulphur.
The swimmers, seasoned veterans and fresh faces alike, said they have a great chance to make a fourth consecutive team championship a reality. Last year, the Doves easily outdistanced second-place Ruston and third place Sacred Heart-New Orleans for the state title.
“We did lose a lot of seniors, but just in the past few days of beginning practice, you can see the young talent in the pool,” said Rawls, a senior who has been on the SSA team since eighth grade.
“They came in with positive attitudes. Just like when I was in eighth grade, you look up to the seniors as positive role models. I kind of knew what I was supposed to be, as far as being a leader, now that I’m a senior.
“I hope they can get the same thing from me that I got when I was their age.”
SSA coach Chris Prator, the New Orleans Advocate’s All Metro Girls Swim Coach of the Year in 2013, said despite the significant losses the Doves encountered, he sees the same talent as Rawls.
He said other top swimmers include Juliana Navarro, Lili Poulsen, Anna Rawls, Ally Spell, Katherine Stolin, Hope Winkler, Alyssa Navarro and Gabriella Fouchi.
Prator said he anticipates having more than a dozen swimmers qualify for state. That depth indicates SSA’s relays will be strong, as they usually are (they had a three-race sweep last season at state.)
“Last year, there was a wealth of experience,” Prator said. “This year, they’re young. And I don’t want to say inexperienced, but I think they’re shooting to make their mark. They know that last year’s team was strong. (This team) is trying to figure out who they are. That’s what I see. And I’ve only had a few days to see them together, so that will continue to evolve over the next few weeks.”
Still, when you capture three consecutive state championships, the target remains firmly planted on the team’s collective back, Prator said.
“We talk a lot about complacency,” he said. “There is no given. Even though they know they’re solid, we come up with scenarios where all kinds of things can happen. We can be dominant, and we can be the favorite, but I can’t let them get complacent.”
Winkler, who placed in the top five in the 100 fly and 100 backstroke at state in 2013, said she relishes the opportunity to be a senior leader in the pool and on the deck.
“It’s different being at the top rather than looking up at the seniors,” she said. “It’s not difficult though. It’s a good opportunity. … We’ll have to have others step up and make state. We can do it again though. You can see it out here at practice.”
Poulsen, another senior who was in the top eight last year in the 50 free, isn’t a year-round swimmer.
Instead, she focuses on ballet, and uses prep swimming to help build her endurance and to keep her in shape. She’s the perfect example, Prator said, of how past success continues to attract girls to the SSA swim program.
“It’s just good to be a part of this team,” Poulsen said. “When you achieve something like state, it’s just a great feeling inside.”
For her part, Rawls (the team captain) said she would like nothing more than leading SSA to a fourth state title in as many years.
“I like not to be dead set on that, in case something happens,” she said. “But I think we can do it. Our team has a whole lot of potential.”