Fox Chapel swimmers ready to take run at section title

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Monday, January 27, 2020 | 7:01 PM


The Fox Chapel girls swimming and diving team went undefeated in 2016-17 and captured a section championship.

The last two years, Franklin Regional brought home the section title.

But with performances from a mix of veterans and top-flight freshmen and overall depth up and down the lineup, the Foxes, 9-0 overall and 4-0 in Section 3-AAA, are feeling optimistic they can bring the crown back home this year.

A Feb. 6 senior-night showdown against Franklin Regional at home is expected to go a long way in deciding the championship.

“We’re all really looking forward to that meet,” said senior Leia Ross, an individual PIAA qualifier last year in the 100-yard backstroke with a sixth-place finish at WPIALs.

“We have a really good chance of winning the section this year. We have a bunch of goals on the wall, and that is one of the main ones. Everyone, from the seniors down to the freshmen, have improved so much this year. We have depth throughout the lineup.”

Fox Chapel coach Dan Taylor said that at the start of the season, high-level expectations were placed on the team, led by Ross; fellow 2019 state qualifiers Grace Gackenbach, a senior, and Vivian Shao, a junior; and freshmen standouts Sophie Shao and Talia Bugel.

“They all came in ready to work and have lived up to what we thought they could do,” Taylor said. “I am really excited for that meet against Franklin. There are going to be some amazing races. The atmosphere here that evening is going to be incredible.”

Ross, Vivian Shao and Gackenbach each returned this season with momentum after strong performances at WPIALs. The three helped the 200 medley relay set a new school record (1:46.12) and place fourth while also leading the 400 free relay to a fourth-place finish (3:33.65).

Taylor said there are a lot of options with the relays this year and that final decisions will be made after the final dual meet in a couple of weeks.

Sophie Shao wasted no time in showing just how much of a difference maker she could be. She put herself on the Fox Chapel record board at a Dec. 19 home meet against Peters Township with a swim of 55.28 seconds in the 100 butterfly.

“I was thinking about that record even last year,” she said. “I was like, ‘I’m going to break it and continue to break records.’ When I touched the wall and looked up, I saw that I got it and was so happy. Everyone was cheering, and I was so proud of myself.”

The 55.28 is the fastest time in WPIAL girls Class AAA this season.

Bugel owns the fastest time in the 100 back (56.34), and Ross is seventh (59.01).

“We knew that both Sophie and Talia would give us instant impact,” Taylor said. “They had a reputation of being very strong club swimmers. Edie Brush is another freshman who has come in and given us some good swims in the 100 fly and 50 free.”

The latest WPIAL performance lists were released Monday at WPIAL.org, and Gackenbach owns the 13th best time in the 500 (5:18.85).

Taylor said he’s also seen some good swims from WPIAL-qualifying sophomores Rei Sperry (100 fly and 100 back) and Ariana Pasquella (100 breast).

The Fox Chapel boys also are undefeated in section meets at 4-0 and are preparing to put their record on the line in what also is shaping up to be a section-deciding meet against Franklin Regional.

“It will be a challenge, but we’re going to give them a run, no doubt,” Taylor said.

Senior captain Jake Sperry is a WPIAL qualifier in several events, including the 200 and 500 free, and Taylor likes what he’s seen as far as his leadership in and out of the pool.

“People follow his lead because of how hard he works and his dedication to get better,” Taylor said. “He sets that example.”

Fox Chapel has one of the deepest boys diving corps in the WPIAL with junior David Manelis at the top of the Class AAA performance list and junior Aiden Ireland ranked eighth. Juniors Jacob Mulhern and Tristan Vettier also have qualified for WPIALs.

Other individual swimming qualifiers on the boys side include sophomore Nate Ross (100 free, 100 back) and seniors Will Wang (100 fly) and Nate Serkov (50 free).

“We have, I think, the most WPIAL qualifiers as a team – boys and girls – since I’ve been here,” Taylor said. “That’s a tribute to them putting the time in and doing what it takes to go faster.”

Michael Love is a Tribune-Review Staff Writer. You can contact Michael by email at mlove@tribweb.com or via Twitter .

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