Land O’ Lakes swim teams celebrate ‘dream’ season

Land O’ Lakes High School’s 2017 swim season was a memorable one.

The Gators thrived in the Class 2A swim meet last month, earning medals and shattering school records in jaw-dropping fashion.

The girls squad finished fifth (out of 47 teams), while the boys placed 10th (out of 39 teams) — marking the highest combined finish at states on record for both teams.

They collectively earned eight medals and set five school records.

The Land O’ Lakes High School Swimming & Diving team wrapped up perhaps its most successful season ever. At the Class 2A swim meet last month, the girls squad finished fifth (out of 47 teams), while the boys placed 10th (out of 39 teams) — marking the highest combined finish at states on record for both teams. Both teams also won conference and districts meets, and were regional runners-up. (Courtesy of Land O’ Lakes Swimming & Diving Team)

The state championships capped an otherwise noteworthy campaign for the Gators, consistently one of the county’s top high school swim programs.

They won district and Sunshine Athletic Conference titles, and were regional runners-up. The conference titles marked the 17th straight for the boys team and ninth straight for the girls.

Both teams also went undefeated (7-0) in their dual-meets this season.

Those moments and more were celebrated during the program’s end-of-year banquet on Dec. 5

“We’ll never have another season like this; this is like your dream season,” boys coach Brian Vaile said, of the 2017 campaign.

Ramsey reflects on historic career
Senior Jabari Ramsey was already a household name, but his final go-round further cemented himself as one of the Gators most accomplished swimmers.

He earned his third straight state gold medal in the 100 breaststroke, with a time of 56:11.

And with that, he became the first boy swimmer from Pasco County to win three straight titles in the same event.

“This whole season went incredibly well. It’s something that as swimmer you dream of,” Ramsey said.

His favorite memory though, was that of being a key member of the Gators 200 medley relay team.

He joined forces with Patryk Pilkowski, Zachary Davis and younger brother Zuri Ramsey to win the state 200 medley relay in 1:35.97 — smashing last year’s school record of 1:39.09 —becoming the first-ever Pasco County relay team to win gold at the Class 2A state championships.

“It still gives me goose bumps,” Ramsey said of the event. “It’s amazing to do it with the team. To win it is great, but to win it with individuals who care just as much as you do just means that much more.”

Ramsey’s four gold medals altogether is also a new county record — surpassing former Mitchell standout Devin McCaffrey, who earned three individual titles during his prep career.

The accomplished Gator has received looks from several universities since the season ended, from the likes of Nevada-Las Vegas and Grand Canyon, as well as Florida and Florida State.

Wherever Ramsey lands, he won’t soon forget a remarkable high school career and the countless relationships forged.

“The group of people, especially this year, has been amazing. It’s been a dream come true,” Ramsey said. “It’s been my pleasure to be a part of a team like this. We’re not selfish. We treat everyone equally. From the slowest person to the fastest person, everyone comes together.”

Beyond the pool, Ramsey will be remembered for his leadership qualities. He’s been a team captain since sophomore year.

He said his goal was just to make the team better and not necessarily become the “best swimmer.”

“I wanted to put the team in a better place every single year,” Ramsey said. “To be able to, after four years, being with a team like this, making the memories, records, everything altogether — it’s been a true blessing.”

Ramsey, who is home-schooled, just recently began taking a few classes on campus. It never deterred him from setting positive examples, however.

“I’ve seen him develop a lot as a leader; he has great leadership skills,” said Vaile, who’s coached high school swimming since 1997.

Vaile noted many home-schoolers can be shy and withdrawn, but insists “Jabari is not that.”

Said Vaile, “He’ll be a good coach. He loves swimming. His knowledge of swimming…is really good, and he generally likes helping people that don’t know. Yes, he got faster, but he developed more as a person.”

Foreign student makes immediate splash
Ramsey wasn’t the only individual boys swimmer to reach the state podium. 

Pilkowski was another recognized medalist, earning third place in the 100 backstroke (51:75) — a time that broke the previous school record by a full 3 seconds.

He also set a school record in the 100 free (47.66) earlier this season.

The junior this year moved from Poland to Land O’ Lakes, staying with his aunt so he could study in the United States.

An accomplished swimmer in his native country, Pilkowski’s arrival was a pleasant surprise for the team, which was in need of a backstroke specialist.

“Talk about a godsend,” Vaile said, “because he is fast.”

The Gators coach still recalls when Pilkowski showed up for the team’s first practice; tryouts had already taken place.

The Gators boys 200 medley relay team became the first-ever Pasco County boys relay team to win gold at the Class 2A state championships. From left: junior Patryk Pilkowski, senior Jabari Ramsey, senior Zachary Davis and freshman Zuri Ramsey.

“I looked at him and could tell he was a swimmer,” Vaile said.

The coach said the English language was often a barrier for Pilkowski, but noted “it got better as the year went by.”

Pilkowski explained it was his “dream” to one day study in America, when he visited the country two years ago.

He acknowledged being on the swim team eased the transition culturally.

“I met a lot of friends here,” Pilkowski said. “Everyone helped me because I’m coming from a different country, and it’s stressful. Everyone was very friendly. Everyone smiled and every time would say to me, ‘Good Luck.’”

Pilkowski is still deciding whether he’ll remain at Land O’ Lakes for his senior year or return to Poland.

“I’m just going to say a little prayer, see if Patryk can maybe bring a friend of two,” Vaile said, jokingly.

Proper sendoff for Schmitz, Schrader
The girls team’s fifth place finish at states was its highest ever — and a marked improvement from previous years.

The group finished 13th last year and 11th in 2015.

It was also a sendoff of sorts for third-year coach Tanner Schmitz, who is stepping away to pursue a master’s degree and a career as a school administrator.

“It was such a great way to finish,” said Schmitz, who previously coached at Wiregrass Ranch and Mitchell high schools.

“We walked out of (states) with our heads high, and the girls were ecstatic to be able to accomplish that.”

The Gators girls 200 free relay team became the first-ever Pasco County girls relay team to finish top three at the state championships. From left: junior Taylor Ward, senior Ashley Schrader, junior Margarita Czupryn and junior Romina McCloskey. 

The team medaled in five events at states — 200 freestyle, 100 freestyle, 500 freestyle, 200 relay and 400 relay.

And, it was all was done by just four girls — juniors Taylor Ward, Romina McCloskey, Margarita Czupryn and senior Ashley Schrader.

The quartet became the first girls relay team in Pasco County history to record a top-three finish at states after they placed third in the 200 free relay in 1:39.71—a school record.

The feat was something Schmitz predicted would happen when he witnessed the budding talent on his first day of practice three years ago.

“I’d been looking at their times and the very first day, I crouched down next to the lane where they were at and I said, ‘Look at each other. Before you graduate, you will be the first Pasco County relay team to finish in the top three.’ …To have that goal that they set as freshman and then do exactly what they set out to do, just as a coach, it doesn’t get better.

“It’s been a really amazing group of girls, to watch and mature through their high school years,” he added.

The 2017 season is likewise nostalgic for Schrader, the relay team’s lone senior.

“This was definitely my favorite year,” she said.

Schrader exits Land O’ Lakes as a three-time state qualifier and a part of three school records (200 medley relay, 200 free relay, 400 free relay).

She plans to swim at New York University next season.

“It’s so sad being gone because now I won’t be there for them anymore, but it was so much fun,” she said of the 2017 season. “There were so many memories. It was just a really good experience.”

Schrader will also miss Schmitz’s coaching influence the past few years. She noted he “helped bring the team all together” after longtime coach Robin Hilgenberg retired in 2015.

Unfinished business for Ward
Besides being a key cog on the Gators 200 and 400 free state relay teams, junior Taylor Ward also delivered a pair of silver medals in the 200 and 500 freestyle races.

Now, she has gold in her sights.

“Definitely the goal for next season is to win a state title,” Ward said.

Her title aspirations seem well within reach.

The 500 free could be wide open considering three of the top four medalists (besides Ward) were seniors.

Meanwhile in the 200 free, Ward again will likely compete against Bayshore junior Ryley Ober (first place) and Clay freshman Sara Stotler (third place).

“If I had money to bet on it, I think she’s going to get a state championship next year,” Schmitz said of Ward.

“That’s her ultimate goal. She came so close this year… .I think she’ll break through next year.”

Ward’s dedication to the sport certainly won’t hurt. She trains year-round, only taking a week off in the summertime.

In addition to swimming daily, her regimen consists of two-a-day practices, or “doubles” on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays. She also lifts weights and runs twice a week, to boost strength and endurance.

Yet her biggest strides in the water have been cerebral.

“I feel like I’m definitely stronger physically, but not only physically, but mentally with my swimming,” Ward said. “I feel like I’m a lot more strategic with my races…so rather than swimming harder, I’m swimming more smarter.”

Land O’ Lakes High School Swimming & Diving
Class 2A state medalists

Boys
200 Medley Relay (1:35.97; first place): Patryk Pilkowski (junior), Jabari Ramsey (senior), Zachary Davis (senior), Zuri Ramsey (freshman)

100 Breaststroke (56.11; first place): Jabari Ramsey

100 Backstroke (51.75; third place): Patryk Pilkowski

Girls
200 Freestyle (1:50.27; second place): Taylor Ward

100 Freestyle (53.07; sixth place): Romina McCloskey

500 Freestyle (4:56.57; second place): Taylor Ward

200 Free Relay (1:39.71; third place): Romina McCloskey (junior), Margarita Czupryn (junior), Ashley Schrader (senior), Taylor Ward (junior)

400 Free Relay (3:38.54; fourth place): Margarita Czupryn,

Romina McCloskey, Ashley Schrader, Taylor Ward

Published December 20, 2017

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