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Swimming Preview: La Cañada blends veterans, promising newcomers in quest for CIF success

Swimming Preview: La Cañada blends veterans, promising newcomers in quest for CIF success
Danny Syrkin, the 2018 All-Area Boys' Swimmer of the Year, is among a talented group of athletes this season for La Cañada. (Tim Berger \ Staff Phtographer)

The La Cañada High swim teams return with ample amount of experience and talent in the new season. That ultimately means setting goals to further cut times and break records in the Rio Hondo League and the CIF Southern Section swimming and diving finals.

For the boys’ side, the Spartans return junior Danny Syrkin, among a contingent of swimmers who claimed a title in the Division III 200-yard medley relay that set the division record, while the girls’ team looks to send more athletes to CIF in hopes to build momentum and capture a team title.

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Flintridge Prep, St. Francis, Flintridge Sacred Heart Academy all also have their share of quality swimmers who look for league, CIF success.

Here is a closer look at the teams.

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LA CAÑADA

Entering their fifth years, boys’ coach David Hill and girls’ coach Ernie Lee have devised a new method for practices to hone in on individual skills for at least 90 athletes in the program.

The duo have divided the team up by color -- red and gold -- to indicate the more advanced swimmers and the ones who are beginners.

“It gives us more of a chance to focus on each individual swimmer and give them the feedback that they need,” Hill said. “I think it’s been working out. It’s kind of a changed we had to make as the program has been growing in numbers. We don’t really have the pool space to accommodate everybody at the same time.”

Both teams claimed Rio Hondo League titles last season. Last season was the first time the league scored a finals meet, switching from going with dual-meet records with an overall scoring sheet.

“Last year, one thing that really happened, that I think is fantastic, is every swimmer had a personal best,” Lee said. “Whether they are swimming somewhere else in training or they’re here with us, I think that shows, being able to actually quantify the improvement, is something we want to recognize.”

Both coaches said it’s a better way to win the title since it not only makes teams more competitive, but it also pushes teammates to go after better marks.

“We had a really excellent season,” Hill said. “We had some real breakthroughs. It was our first time winning Rio Hondo League in a few years, so we’re hoping to take that momentum and come back full force again.”

Success isn’t far for a team that returned the majority of their athletes and will have some new additions.

“We do have a whole bunch of freshmen that are really good,” Lee said. “I want to see what they can do. I don’t know how to really talk about them yet because we haven’t [competitively] raced them. I have seen their time from their club teams and they’re going to slot in and score a bunch of points for us early.”

The boys graduated one senior in Matt Bilaver, who was the anchor for the boys’ title-winning 200 medley relay team that broke the CIF Southern Section Division II mark with a winning mark of 1 minute, 32.98 seconds.

“We’re trying to bring back that medley relay we had last year,” Hill said. “Our anchor freestyle is the one who graduated, but we finally have the depth now to fill those spots. We’re actually hoping to take down our meet record again. We’ve got some pretty lofty goals, but I believe we have the talent to back it up.”

On the pool deck to defend the relay title are seniors Eddie Cosic and Thomas Hoffman and Syrkin, a junior and the reigning All-Area Boys’ Swimmer of the Year who won CIF titles in the 100-yard butterfly and 100 backstroke.

“He’s going to swim different events one meet and then switch it up the next meet,” said Hill of Syrkin. “He’s a very calculated swimmer. He’s got a plan in mind and he’s really, really good at executing his plan when he sets his mind to it. I’m expecting some really fantastic things from him.”

“He’s got a goal of taking down a lot of our school records. He’s trying to get his name up on that board as much as possible. I think he’s got a pretty good shot at getting a lot of those.”

Other key returners include seniors Mark Fanelli and Juan Grases, who’s younger sibling, Santiago, is among Hill’s top newcomers.

Included in the talented core is sophomore Chris O’Grady and freshman Braden Beagle. The two swim on a national team at Rose Bowl Aquatics, and Hill said their versatility adds depth.

“It’s really good to have that really firm ground of big, strong swimmers and we’re especially lucky that they’re all so young,” Hill said. “I think we have a pretty bright future, and hopefully, this year, we’ll kick off a good start for us for the next few years or so.”

On the girls’ team, Lee brings back a key senior in backstroke specialist Maddie O’Dell, water polo veterans Genevieve Fraipont and Rayne Lopez, along with senior Shannon Ring.

Lee expects a breakthrough season from Julia Bridges, who competes in the 200 individual medley and 100 butterfly.

In the underclassmen department, the Spartans will have another Syrkin on the girls’ team in Alexandra. The sophomore claimed the league title in the 200 individual medley and was part of relay teams at CIF.

Another highlight for the underclassmen is freshmen Mae O’Grady, who specializes in long-distance events and will provide help in the 200 and 500 races.

“That’s probably one of the hardest positions to fill, which is the 500, the 100 fly and the 200 IM,” Lee said. “She can probably swim them all. It’s nice when you get these kids that are experienced to come in here.”

Sophomores Angele and Daria Paull will bring versatility.

FLINTRIDGE PREP

For the first time in the school’s history a year ago, both swim teams won Prep League championships in the same season.

The pieces might be in place for Flintridge Prep coach Ingrid Herskind, who would like to see it occur for a second straight campaign.

“It would be great for both teams to win league again,” Herskind said. “We are also looking to make some noise at CIF.

“We have a big senior class for the boys and it’s talented. We have almost the entire girls’ team back after graduating just one athlete.”

For the girls’ team, the Rebels, who took seventh in the CIF Southern Section Division III finals last season, will boast a lineup that includes seniors Emily Alameddine (freestyle) and Emily Jacobs (individual medley/breaststroke), and junior Makena Walklett (butterfly/backstroke), who will be joined by her sophomore sister, Devyn (breaststroke/individual medley).

Flintridge Prep’s boys’ team will have a contingent of seniors looking to pave the way, including Winston Chen (backstroke/freestyle), Matt Ng (individual medley/breaststroke), Oliver Brookbanks (freestyle/relays) and Ben Brookbanks (freestyle/relays).

The Rebels placed 10th at the CIF finals in 2018.

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ST. FRANCIS

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St. Francis coach Brady Lowdermilk is expecting more improvement from the Golden Knights, who compete in the Mission League.

The Golden Knights have nearly 30 athletes, the most Lowdermilk has had since taking over the program.

Lowdermilk said St. Francis is capable of contending against dominant league opponents such as Loyola, Harvard-Westlake and Sherman Oaks Notre Dame.

“[We are] hoping to improve our rank at the Mission League Championships in the middle of April.,” Lowdermilk said. “We are returning four of the five members from last year's record setting CIF team, who, along with a couple of other guys, have their eyes set on making a big splash at that meet this season.

“I anticipate that several swimmers will qualify for and swim in the [CIF finals] in individual events and that we'll score points in all three relays as well. If it all goes as planned, we'll rewrite nearly the entire school record board.”

The core for St. Francis will be seniors John Balog,(freestyle/relays) and Jackson Dudas (freestyle/relays) and juniors Chris Bruce, (relays), Ethan Gray (relays/individual medley/butterfly) and Michael Smith (breaststoke/individual medley/freestyle).

FLINTRIDGE SACRED HEART ACADEMY

The Tologs turn to first-year coach Carlos Ponce in their quest to get back on track after being a dominant program earlier in the decade.

For Ponce, it’s mainly about building continuity and trying to move Flintridge Sacred Heart back to or near the top in the Mission League.

“There’s a lot of tradition with the program,” Ponce said. “The atmosphere and culture within the program is great and the girls are all looking to get better and make their marks on the program.”

Flintridge Sacred Heart’s core will likely be senior Kathryn Gerhardt (freestyle/backstroke), junior Emily Giesler (individual medley/breaststroke/relays) and sophomore Sophia Cotman (freestyle/butterfly).

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