For the first time in nearly two years, Manhattan High’s girls will compete in the pool Thursday at the Salina South Invitational.
The Indians practiced for about two weeks last preseason before KSHAA canceled all spring sports. Since then, they’ve spent 12 months watching coronavirus case numbers and looking ahead to the spring calendar. They were supposed to start their season Tuesday at Shawnee Mission South, but that meet was postponed after shattered glass spilled into the host’s pool, forcing it to the drained.
Now Manhattan’s wait is over. During preseason meetings, head swim coach Alex Brown reminded his swimmers of last year’s disappointment. The 2021 season may prove strange (limited spectators) and challenging (MHS will not field a dive team), but after not having a chance to compete last year, the Indians must appreciate every meet.
“We’re so excited,” Brown said. “That’s one of the first things we talked about at our preseason meetings: appreciate the opportunity, because you all have direct experience with those opportunities being taken away just like that.”
Brown’s Indians return three contributors from the 2019 team that won the Centennial League and finished 18th at the Class 6A state meet. Senior Sydney Hicks is a two-time state qualifier and All-Centennial League honoree. Fellow senior Talia Francois qualified for three state events (100-yard butterfly, 400-yard freestyle relay, 200-yard freestyle relay) in 2019. And junior Meredith Graves finished sixth in the 100-yard butterfly at the 2019 conference meet.
Brown expects them, along with sophomore Sophia Steffensmeier and freshman Ruth Perez, to pace Manhattan, which enters this season as the defending Centennial League champions. Browns said Steffensmeier will help the Indians “in any event we put her in.” Perez will join her teammates late after qualifying for a national meet in Florida with her club team.
Brown happily excused her from preseason preparations for such an opportunity.
“We’re definitely OK with her starting after all of that,” he said. “She will certainly be ready (for the season).”
Francois, a captain, began her preseason preparations one month before Manhattan started practices (about three weeks ago). Francois has been driving to the Wamego Aquatic Center, which now serves as the Indians’ practice home after Kansas State closed the Ahearn Natatorium because of COVID concerns.
Losing the natatorium hurt Manhattan’s offseason preparation. Brown said some of his swimmers have not competed in the pool since their last meet in 2019, and it will take them “a good chunk of” this season to regain peak form.
“It will probably take a solid month or so before the kids are back in shape,” Brown said. “We’re starting them out at low yardages and low intensities. We’ve got to get the fitness levels built up first.”
Another consequence of the Indians’ venue change is contracting their diving team. Their new pool in Wamego only stretches 5 feet deep, which is too shallow to host diving practices.
That leaves “five or six” returning divers without a diving board and the Indians without a surplus of points at the conference meet in May. Brown said the Indians will miss their teammates and the points they provided, but the Indians cannot dwell on their unfortunate circumstance.
Instead, Brown is emphasizing the lessons the pandemic has taught his swimmers: persevere through hard times; show gratitude for the chance to compete; and when it comes to their absent diving teammates, focus on how each swimmer can account for the loss of each diver.
The Indians would’ve won the Centennial League title even without their diving points in 2019. Perhaps they can do it again.
“We just have to go out and control what we can,” Brown said. “And fight like crazy to bring that trophy back.”