CANONSBURG – Senior distance swimmer Chuckie Smith remembers the days, only a few years ago, when the Canon-McMillan swimming and diving team would fork over points to an opponent because it couldn’t enter every event.
He’s also glad they no longer exist.
“We normally don’t fill up all the events with people, but this year we’ve filled up every single one,” Smith said.
Credit that to a gigantic number of freshmen and sophomores who helped the Big Macs to three straight wins to open the season. Such a strong group of younger swimmers also has Canon-Mac thinking big things in years to come.
“I think in a couple of years, we’re probably going to have another logo on the WPIAL banner,” Smith said.
Second-year coach Lee Caffrey pins the increased interest in the program to the middle school team, which she coaches and campaigns for almost like a politician, rattling off the benefits of swimming at a moment’s notice.
The middle school team attracted 50 members last season, 52 this year – so impressive that the Big Macs can’t take everyone to away meets because they won’t fit on one bus.
At the varsity level, Canon-Mac has 18 freshmen, 11 sophomores, six juniors and eight seniors, roughly a 25 percent increase across the board.
“The team has been getting larger the past couple years,” Caffrey said. “Because of that, we have more depth. So we’re able to score sometimes (at) third and fourth place, whereas before we were just scoring and placing in one or two places.”
Caffrey has the Big Macs practicing six days a week in a variety of ways: dry land training three days a week, including weekly interval workouts with a trainer, and two morning practices a week.
Canon-McMillan already owns dual meet wins over Thomas Jefferson, Uniontown and Belle Vernon. Further, all three of the girls relays have qualified for the WPIAL Class AAA championships: the 200-yard freestyle relay, the 400 free and 200 medley.
Highlighting those outstanding freshmen has been Brittany Byer, who has already qualified for the WPIAL meet in the 50 free and 100 backstroke.
“The freshmen are really good this year,” Byer said. “We’re getting a lot of support from them, because we don’t have a ton of seniors and juniors. Our size has been really growing. Next year, we’re going to have a lot, too. It’s nice to have freshmen support.”
Senior Kayla Vidmar, sophomore Julia Corton and senior Caleigh Purcell swam on the 200 freestyle relay team that placed 13th last year with a time of 1:43.28. The same three also swam on the 400 freestyle relay team.
Sophomore Desiree Kline qualified for the WPIAL meet as a first-year diver last year. Senior Michael Burchesky leads the boys team in the 50 freestyle, among other events, and Smith is a standout in the 500.
Senior captain Katie McCarthy suffered a broken hand but has still been practicing with the team – making friends with a kickboard – and has provided steady leadership.
“The other thing is that we have a lot more versatility,” Caffrey said. “We have people we can throw in distance, freestyle or IM.”
Caffrey was talking about her swimmers, but she very well could have been describing the Big Macs coaching staff. Caffrey was a freestyle/backstroker at Clarion; Canon-Mac graduate Andrew Sabol swam the breaststroke and butterfly; Mary Gidas (Upper St. Clair) was a breaststroker; and fellow C-M alum Rob Marra swam butterfly.
The team will often break into small groups and work with their own “position” coach, sort of like a football team might practice its offense.
“Each of the coaches are good at different strokes and different distances,” Smith said. “If you have trouble on something, there’s a coach there who has swam it before. They know how to do it.”