Tuesday, 12 January 2021 20:10

SEASON PREVIEW: Smaller team not stopping Richmond from improving

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Junior Ellie Buck (front) and senior Thomas Barbee swim practice laps at FirstHealth on Tuesday. Junior Ellie Buck (front) and senior Thomas Barbee swim practice laps at FirstHealth on Tuesday. Kyle Pillar — Sports Editor.

ROCKINGHAM — While watching his team swim laps during Tuesday’s practice, Mike Way couldn’t help but comment on how much different this season looks than the previous three.

The North Carolina high school swimming and diving season officially opened in mid November, but a series of hiccups have yet to see Richmond Senior High School participate in a meet. 

Way hopes that will change this Saturday when the Sandhills Athletic Conference takes its third crack at its season opener.

One of Richmond’s newest athletic programs, the boys’ and girls’ swimming teams are entering their fourth season, all under Way and assistant coach Andy Shuler. A developing program, this year’s squads have taken a hit on personnel due to overlapping sports seasons.

Instead of his usual 20 or so combined swimmers, Way is working with a limited roster of just a half dozen Richmond athletes this winter. At practice Tuesday, Way had four swimmers in the pool — senior Thomas Barbee, juniors Ellie Buck and Wil Mabe and freshman Katie Way.

“This is a season unlike any other,” Way explained. “Part of the problem this year is with all of the sports piled up on each other, we’ve lost a lot of kids to other sports. Most of our kids play other sports and use swimming as an offseason workout. 

“But the kids we’ve had here are still working hard and are trying to get better,” he added. “They want to compete, and all we can do is the best we can despite our limited numbers.”

Not swimming this season are former seniors Dakota Locklear, Robbie Baxley, Aerial Spooner and Kayla Hawkins. Some of the multi-sport athletes absent from the team include juniors Kenleigh Frye, Maylyn Wallace and Colin Wheeler.

Way said it’s no secret that perennial powerhouses Jack Britt and Pinecrest high schools are expected to be atop the SAC again this year. But he said he’s having Richmond’s swimmers focus on being the best they can be in their respective events.

Barbee and Buck are both third-year swimmers, and Mabe is entering his second season with the team. Having previous experience is something Way believes will help Richmond compete amongst fellow programs like Hoke County, Lumberton, Purnell Swett and Scotland high schools.

“Our focus will be on the sprint races like the 50 and 100-meter freestyles,” Way explained. “But Thomas is also wanting to swim the individual medley, which is one of the hardest events. 

“Ellie has been working toward the longer distances like the 200-meter and she wants to be able to swim the 500-meter by next year.”

Junior Wil Mabe comes up for air during a lap in the pool during Tuesday’s practice.

Buck said that having a couple of seasons under her belt has given her and the other veteran swimmers a better understanding of the team’s expectations going into Saturday’s meet.

“I’m really excited for the season and I spent a lot of time practicing in the offseason,” Buck explained. “I think I’m more prepared than I was last year and I know the team is ready to get the season started.

“Having a background in swimming definitely helps, but the coronavirus has made it hard to get into shape because we’ve had limited time to practice,” she added. “Having a smaller team is a challenge, but that presents a good challenge in having to push yourself even harder to score points.”

Barbee, who has come to really enjoy the sport, said he was fearful that his senior swimming season may be in jeopardy because of the pandemic. Although it’s not the ideal way to close his career, he said the situation has made him appreciate being a Raider and he hopes to make every lap in the pool count.

“I’m not going to try and place first, instead I want to attempt to save the sport I really enjoy,” Barbee said. “Swimming is a ton of fun and this year is more about getting everyone on the team involved and having fun.

“It’s not always about winning, it’s about coming to the pool every day and enjoying what we’re doing,” he added. “I want everyone to try something new and go outside of their comfort zone. If we can do that, myself included, this year will be a success.”

The SAC has used the pool at St. Andrews University to host meets the last three years, but the pool is unavailable because of COVID-19 protocols. Instead, this season’s meets will be held at the Westover Aquatic Center in Fayetteville.

Way said teams will swim in an outdoor heated pool, and that a protective dome has been placed over the site to try and protect swimmers from the elements. The first two meets of the season, however, have been canceled because of issues with the pool’s temperature and chemical levels.

“This year is not going to have strong team scores because it takes numbers to win points in relays and individual events,” Way explained. “Our expectations have to be realistic, and that’s for each swimmer to do the best they can in their events.

“We are still a team, but we changed our goals from team goals to more individual based because of the number of swimmers we have.”

There is the possibility that other swimmers like junior Kassie Smith and senior Jonathan Alecia, both of whom swam last year, will return at some point this season to provide extra support for Richmond. 

In previous years, many of Richmond’s points were earned during relay events, which require four swimmers.

“I don’t want people to think that this year reflects where we are as a program,” Way said. “Because of all the other things going on, swimming is getting hit especially hard since kids are not in their offseason. 

“These kids have been great and will do anything Coach Shuler or I have asked them to do, even when they’re tired,” he closed. “They are trying to be their best at this, and that’s all we can ask. If they learn to enjoy swimming, that’s enough for me.”

Kyle Pillar

Three-time award-winning sports editor. Indiana University of Pennsylvania communications media and journalism alumni. English teacher, Ninth Grade Academy.

Submit local sports scores to: kpillar@richmondobserver.com

Twitter: ROSports_