Next wave of Fox Chapel freshmen set for WPIAL swimming championships

Tuesday, February 25, 2020 | 7:02 PM

Zoe Skirboll burst onto the high school swimming scene last year as a freshman for Fox Chapel, capturing gold medals and setting records at the WPIAL and PIAA Class AAA championships.

She decided not to return to high school swimming this year, opting to concentrate on training for June’s Olympic Trials.

A pair of Fox Chapel freshmen are hoping to follow in her footsteps Thursday and Friday at the WPIAL finals at Pitt’s Trees Pool.

Sophie Shao, seeded first in the 100-yard butterfly and second in the 100 breaststroke, and Talia Bugel, second in the 100 backstroke and fourth in the 50 freestyle, are set to lead a Foxes contingent to what it hopes are strong finishes on the district’s biggest stage.

“There are some nerves, but I want to try and use that to go faster,” said Shao, who owns a school-record time of 55.12 seconds in the 100 fly, a half-second ahead of No. 2 Ella Ogden (55.46), a sophomore from North Allegheny.

Shao (1:04.81) is second to Mt. Lebanon senior Maddie Dorish (1:04.32) in the 100 breast. Butler junior Laura Goettler, runner-up to Skirboll at WPIALs last year and the defending state champion, is in the mix as the No. 3 seed (1:04.95).

“I was a little surprised I was seeded that high (in the 100 breast),” Shao said. “The 100 fly, I think it will be a good race. Ella and I, our times are very close. With the taper, I can already feel fast swims ahead of me. I’m feeling pretty good right now.”

Bugel is just 16 hundredths of a second (55.87) behind South Fayette senior Abbie Duncan in the 100 back. She set the school record in the event at Fox Chapel’s section-clinching home meet with Franklin Regional on Feb. 6.

In the 50 free, she is among those hoping to chase down three-time WPIAL champion, Louisville commit and No. 1 seed Olivia Livingston from Gateway.

“I am pretty excited to swim at WPIALs for the first time,” Bugel said. “I feel I have my best swims ahead of me. I have a lot of competition, and that pushes me.”

Others from Fox Chapel positioned in the fastest heat include WPIAL medalists and PIAA veterans in seniors Leia Ross, sixth in the 100 back and seventh in the 200 free, and Grace Gackenbach, eighth in the 500 free.

Gackenbach just missed the final heat in the 200 free by 10 hundredths of a second and is seeded ninth.

All three girls relays also are positioned in the fastest heat. The girls 200 medley relay is seeded second to North Allegheny. The 400 free relay is third, and the 200 free relay is fifth.

Bugel, Sophie Shao, Rei Sperry and Vivian Shao own a season-best time of 1:46.49 in the 200 medley relay and are hoping to eclipse the school record of 1:46.12 recorded by Skirboll, Vivian Shao, Ross and Gackenbach at WPIALs last year.

Kiski Area freshmen Levi Hansen and Parker Sterlitz hope to make an impact in their WPIAL debuts. They lead the way for the Cavaliers with Hansen the 10th seed in the 500 free and Sterlitz right behind him in 11th. They will be separated by one lane in the second-fastest heat Friday.

Hansen is within a second (4:49.89) of No. 8 seed Austin Prokopec of Penn-Trafford. Sterlitz is about 2 seconds back of Hansen.

“Both of the boys have had a really good last two weeks of practice,” Kiski Area coach Lisa Pepka said. “We started their taper workouts, and they’re showing that they’re very strong. It’s been fun to watch them improve their swims and their times all season.”

Sterlitz will pull a double Friday as he also will swim the 100 back (13th seed) about a half-hour after the 500. Hansen is seeded 14th for Thursday’s 200 free.

Plum senior Joey Decheck, who will join his brother Justin at Gannon next year, is the top-seeded Mustangs swimmer among the more than a dozen who have qualified. He is the No. 10 seed (22.41) in the boys 50 free.

“He was pretty excited when I told him he was 10th,” Plum coach Shawn Haupt said. “It just made him more motivated. The 50 is a race where everyone is fast. It’s about who is fastest first, being perfect off the block, perfect under water, breaking out with that first stroke and getting to a top speed before everyone else. I know he can go even faster.”

What: WPIAL Class AAA Swimming Championships

When: Thursday and Friday. Timed finals from 9:45 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. each day

Where: Pitt’s Trees Pool

Thursday: 200 medley relay, 200 freestyle, 200 individual medley, 50 free, 100 butterfly, 200 free relay

Friday: 100 free, 500 free, 100 backstroke, 100 breaststroke, 400 free relay

What’s on the line: Medals for the top eight finishers in each event. The champions receive an automatic berth to the PIAA championships, set for March 11-14 at Bucknell. Other top times will be compared with times from the other 11 districts to determine the remaining at-large bids to states.

Live stream: A broadcast of the Class AAA finals each day can be viewed by checking out the Triblive High School Sports Network.

Michael Love is a TribLive reporter covering sports in the Alle-Kiski Valley and the eastern suburbs of Pittsburgh. A Clearfield native and a graduate of Westminster (Pa.), he joined the Trib in 2002 after spending five years at the Clearfield Progress. He can be reached at

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