By Jeff Odom
When Wiregrass Ranch swim coach Tanner Schmitz’s boys and girls teams were placed in the grueling Class 3A-District 5 last years, he knew the program was going to face a challenge.
Not only where the Bulls moving up in classification, but their district is filled with state powerhouses like Palm Harbor University, Plant, East Lake and Countryside. The challenge was overwhelming at first, but Schmitz used the speed and athleticism of his Bulls new opponents as teaching tools and motivation to strive for more.
“As a coach, the positive I take from it is that my kids are getting pushed,” said Schmitz, who is in his third season with the Bulls. “My best swimmers are getting pushed by better swimmers, and they’re getting faster. The downside is we don’t send as many kids to regionals, so they don’t get as much of that big postseason experience. … The kids get to swim with the top level of talent and see that sense of what to strive for.”
While 3A-5 is tough, the nondistrict schedule is just as competitive on both the team and individual level. Top tier Pasco County programs like Land O’ Lakes, Sunlake and Mitchell aren’t far from the Wiregrass Ranch athletes’ minds, but other goals stand tall too.
“No matter who it is, they’re always working hard,” Schmitz said. “The experienced swimmers, they get it. They understand going from 2A to 3A was huge, and that they’ve got to just step up their game. Most of them are rising to the occasion. … All we talk about day in and day out is team, kind of taking the individuality out of it.”
On the girls side, the Bulls return two of its top performers — senior Chelsea Hernandez and sophomore Athena Cimino.
Cimino won a district title and qualified for states in the 50-yard freestyle while battling through a broken thumb that affected her at the end of the season.
“I put down on paper I (am) going to states as a freshman, and I knew I just couldn’t give up because of it,” Cimino said.
She said doctors didn’t want her competing because of the injury, but that didn’t stop her.
“I had an MRI on my birthday, and that was my birthday present, a broken thumb,” Cimino joked. “(The doctors) didn’t want me to swim, and I begged them to wait two weeks. So, the day after states, I went and got casted.”
For the boys, junior Matt Menendez finished as a district runner-up two years ago in the 100 butterfly, but was unable to advance to regionals facing 3A-5 competition in 2011. He said teammates like Cimino and the message from Schmitz have motivated the squad to do better as a whole.
“We always know that when we go to practice, we’re there to work harder than the other teams,” Menendez said. “Every day that’s our goal, to outwork others. When we go to meets, we learn to do everything right that we can; and if we’re wrong, we learn from it the next meet.”
The Bulls host Pasco Sept. 19 at the New Tampa YMCA starting at 6 p.m.