Jackson swimming, diving teams ready to make splash

Andy Harris
Suburbanite correspondent

JACKSON TWP. With a growing degree of uncertainty hanging over the upcoming winter sports season for local high school teams, excitement and concern are high for the Jackson boys and girls swimming teams.

The Polar Bears have remained one of the top programs in the Federal League and Stark County for years and as they train for what they hope will be a full, uninterrupted season ahead, they know that the rise in confirmed COVID-19 cases – coupled with Gov. Mike DeWine's recent comments about a possible restrictions – means their upcoming campaign could be paused or altered at any time.

"The overall mindset of the team is that they're ready to go and they want to have a season. I can't imagine what I would have felt like if I was their age and this was going on," second-year head coach Doug Nist said. "My message to them is to train today like there is no next week and they know what that means ... the season could be shut off at any point and it's out of my control and out of their control."

While they don't control whether the season will take place as currently scheduled, the Polar Bears have been hard at work on the aspects of the process that are within their control. During the summer, they were able to gather as a team and practice outdoors at Shady Hollow Country Club, which allowed the team to have pool time in the mornings.

Working outdoors while adhering to health and safety protocols gave the squad a good start on the season and with each team facing a different set of challenges, every training session has been valuable.

The girls team will count primarily on its returning competitors as just one incoming freshman swimmer is on the roster. The leading returning competitors include Janine Murphy, Sam Schilling, Victoria Nist and Abbie Green, with the latter two serving as team captains. All four are experienced swimmers who have been in plenty of big meets and they'll be counted on to set the tone for a group that's in what its head coach described as "a changeover year."

"Not a lot has changed for the girls. We lost some good senior leadership, but they're still going to be solid," Doug Nist said. "We have a good group of seniors who have been around for a while and most of them have been district qualifiers."

While the roster may not have overwhelming numbers, the talent among its returnees should create a solid foundation for the girls team. It's a different story for the boys, who do have a large freshman class joining the program and Doug Nist noted that those younger swimmers have already made a positive impact.

"We have a huge group of freshmen, so we've more or less doubled our team size since last year and they're going to be strong contributors to good group of upperclassmen," he said. "Our freshmen boys brought a whole new dynamic to the team. They want to do well, to push everybody and push themselves. They know they're not fastest on the team but they want to get to that point."

The energy from the freshmen has been evident since the official start of practice in late October and the hope is that their youthful enthusiasm will carry over into meets. They join a group of returning swimmers that includes three-time state qualifier Aiden Neuman, who is also a two-time All-American, as well as returning district qualifier Jaden Haines, with that duo set to serve as team captains.

Add in junior Christian Ferrante, sophomore Sam Thayer, junior Jonah Weinland and a solid group around them and the makings are in place for a team capable of once again competing against the best in the league and county.

Despite the different challenges facing the boys and girls, one common element ties the two teams together.

With four divers each, the boys and girls have the sort of depth on the diving board that most programs can't match. Junior Zach Shering is the headliner among the divers, returning after qualifying for the state meet last season. With eight divers, there is a solid group in place to push one another and also to score points at dual meets and invitationals.

"With a couple of new divers, we have eight divers total, which is unheard of and a really good thing," Nist said.

On a day-to-day basis, the focus is on preparing for the scheduled first meet of the year, Dec. 2 at the McKinley Relays. That particular meet is the unofficial kickoff of the year in virtually every season and brings Jackson together with several of its Federal League rivals as they swim against one another in a relay format and without the drama of an official league meet. Those meets begin shortly after the McKinley Relays, with a few non-league meets slated in the mix between Dec. 2 and the meet that has been a de facto league championship contest in many recent seasons.

That would be the Jackson-Hoover meet, set for Jan. 30. The Polar Bears and Vikings have combined to dominate the past decade for Federal League boys and girls swimming and this year's meet is likely to be another memorable battle. One major difference this time around is simply getting to the last meet of the season will likely feel like a win in and of itself.

As fall sports have shown not only in Stark County, but across Ohio, the pandemic can easily disrupt seasons and force the postponement or cancellation of sporting events at the last minute. The decisions on if and when that happens are in the hands of state, local and district officials and administrators, leaving coaches and athletes to train and prepare as if there will be a season even with the chance that they may not get to compete as much as they'd like.

It figures to be a season unlike any before it for two Jackson teams eager to show what they can do both in the pool and on the diving board.