JACKSON TWP. One of the unforgiving truths about the high school swimming and diving postseason is that with each successive round, a competitor tends to have fewer and fewer teammates competing alongside them.
Sometimes, a swimmer who reaches the state tournament is the only one from his or her school to get that far, meaning that teammates have to cheer them on from the stands with the rest of the fans. Fortunately for the Jackson Polar Bears, through the first wave of postseason competition, they've managed to keep a large contingent alive and advancing onward.
"We had a good sectional meet, with 20 kids advancing to districts, with 17 swimmers and three divers," first-year head coach Doug Nist said.
Having a good sectional meet was encouraging for multiple reasons. After a challenging end to the regular season that saw both the boys and girls drop four straight dual meets, including two in Federal League competition to Green and Hoover, swimming and diving well at the Division I sectional meet was a good way to bounce back.
Additionally, swimming and diving well when it matters most suggests that a team handles pressure well and also that it's peaking at the right time.
Beyond that, having nearly two dozen athletes moving on to the district meet has its benefits both on team and individual levels.
"The benefit is you have your teammates around you and our kids do a good job of picking each other up," Nist said. "They train, practice, compete and go to school together, so they do a good job of recognizing when someone's not feeling well, or is nervous or not quite right mentally during a meeting, and encouraging them."
The sectional meet proved as much, with the Jackson swimmers and divers both doing their part. For the girls, senior diver Danielle Daiger advanced and is seeded 21st entering the district meet, while other strong efforts at the Canton Division I sectional included the 400 freestyle relay team of Victoria Nist, Abbie Green, Allie Snyder and Janine Murphy (fourth), the boys 200 medley relay team of Jaden Haines, Aiden Neuman, Jonah Weinland and Samuel Thayer (fourth) and divers Zach Schering and Vinny Traganza, who both earned spots in the Cleveland Division I district meet.
The contingent heading to Cleveland State University's Busbey Natatorium is fairly evenly split, with 12 girls and eight boys making the trip, and Nist credited Neuman for kicking off the sectional meet with a strong effort in one of the early events, the 200 iM.
"Aiden Neuman really set the tone for the day in the 200 IM and Janine Murphy did the same for the girls," Nist said.
He admitted that with this being his first year leading the program, it has taken time for the athletes to get to know him and his coaching style and for him to learn about them. As a result, training has been a bit different than in the past and although Nist couldn't point to any one area where it has been substantially different, he noted that swimming "isn't an exact science," so it's been a process of learning and growing as the year has gone on. What he does know is that many swimmers in the program, both those still alive in the postseason and those whose seasons ended with sectionals, have swam in the district and its youth program over the course of their careers and being from the area, they've seen up close what the state meet means to the local swimming and diving community because it's hosted each year by the C.T. Branin Natatorium at Canton McKinley High School, one of Jackson's league rivals.
Being so close allows younger swimmers a chance to attend the state meet as fans and see how excited the local swimming community gets about the event, making them even more excited when they have a chance to vie for a spot in Canton in the biggest meet of the season.
"Having been a swimmer myself, you know that swimming in state meet is a huge accomplishment if you have opportunity to do it and it doesn't matter where you go to school," Nist said. "Most of our kids have grown up living in Jackson and they've been around the state meet their entire life, so they know how big it is."
For 20 Jackson competitors, that chance remains alive heading into the district meet and with another good effort, they have a shot at punching their ticket to Canton and seeing firsthand what it feels like to compete on the big stage.