By Kyle LoJacono
No area swim teams were more affected by graduation than the Wharton boys and girls.
Gone are the The Laker/Lutz News Boys and Girls Swimmers of the Year in Danielle Albright and Chad Ankers, who qualified for the Class 3A state meet in four and two events, respectively.
“Both of them were very good leaders, not only because they were good swimmers but because they were vocal,” said Julia Lamb, who has been one of the Wildcats’ coaches for six years. “You knew when they were there and they were definitely captains.”
While the Wildcats lost their top swimmers, the graduates have left an impression on those who return.
“(Danielle) didn’t put pressure on herself,” said sophomore Dee Sopapong. “I would get more nervous before a race. I want to be more like that.”
Connor O’Halloran, who competes in the 50- and 100-yard freestyle and 200 individual medley, added, “From watching Chad I improved my stroke. He had really long strokes. I’m more like his build. I’m taller with longer arms, so I’ve copied his stroke.”
Lamb has also seen new leadership in boys like sophomore Ryan Heckel, senior Jeffrey Stump and O’Halloran and girls like sophomore Katie Scott.
“Katie is going to be a good replacement,” Lamb continued. “She’s a captain this year, and she’s going to be a big help in replacing Danielle’s enthusiasm for the team.”
Scott, who does the 100 backstroke and 200 freestyle, got a taste of the state meet last year while on the 200 medley relay with Sopapong and Albright.
“It was so exciting,” Scott said. “Not a lot of freshmen get to go to state, but I was able to. I was on a high the whole time. The team last year was good, and we had a tight-knit group. We knew from the beginning that we were going to go to states. … In club I’m not usually one of the top swimmers, so it was nice to be one of the top dogs. It was cool to be able to say, ‘Yeah, I’m first or second.’”
Scott said she feels more comfortable leading now that she has experience with high school swimming.
“Last year, I was always wondering if what I was doing was OK; am I doing this right,” Scott said. “Now I know the game and know how to do things. I’m definitely more aware of what it takes to get to states.”
Sopapong knows what it takes to make states in four events: 100 breaststroke; 200 individual medley; 200 medley and freestyle relays. Her best performance came in the breaststroke, where she took sixth overall with a finish of 1 minute 6.56 seconds.
“Dee is going to be our big guns,” Lamb said. “She’s a sophomore, but she will make it to states in both of her events.”
Sopapong, whose family moved from Thailand when she was 9, started swimming at age 5 and has high hopes for this season.
“This year I want to get a medal, so top three,” Sopapong said.
Sopapong said she’s been working on staying underwater longer during swims, which allows her to maintain momentum off the start.
For the boys, O’Halloran has been working to improve his breaststroke and backstroke in order to qualify for is first regional meet. Heckel, who did the 200 and 500 freestyle last year, has been working on improving in a pair of new races.
“I’ve never done the fly in a race for high school, so I want to see what kind of time I can get,” Heckel said. “For freestyle, I’ve been working on the 100. I don’t know why, but I’ve always liked freestyle and the 100 is something I’ve always wanted to do.”
Wharton has high hopes for this season but also has an eye to the future with so many young swimmers.
“Some of the guys who started this year, if they stick to it and practice, they have some potential,” Heckel said. “Hopefully that means good things for the team in the years to come.”
The Wildcats host Lennard Sept. 18 at 6:30 p.m.
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