Thomas Jefferson swimmers maintain success through pandemic protocols, coaching change

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Sunday, February 14, 2021 | 9:01 AM


Thomas Jefferson’s first-year coach is a familiar figure to the many members of the swim program.

Brian Peters, former assistant to longtime mentor John Penn, has taken over as head coach following Penn’s retirement.

“Wow, I have been coaching a long time, but I have never felt more like a rookie,” Peters said. “I have always enjoyed the role of assistant. Give me the kids and some water and that is where I am most comfortable, and I have been blessed to have experienced some success in doing so.

“I knew the learning curve would be steep, but in the current pandemic circumstances, everything is different. Trying to adequately train and prepare athletes by squeezing a full season into a little more than half of one is certainly a special challenge.”

The leader of the pack among the 64 team members at TJ is senior record holder Hallie Findlan.

A four-year star for the Jaguars, Findlan has qualified for this year’s WPIAL Class AAA championships in the 50- and 100-yard freestyle events.

“So far, I’ve made new, faster cut times in the 50 and 100 free events,” Findlan said. “I continue to work with my coach on other events and we plan to evaluate our options when the time comes.

“I am happy that I’ve qualified. My goal is to continue to work hard and do well in my events at the championship meet. I continue to work with my coaches and my teammates, and I hope they also can qualify in their events.”

On Jan. 25 against Steel Valley, Findlan posted the top WPIAL Class AA girls 100 freestyle time (53.84) this season. She is the defending WPIAL champion in that event.

Findlan also owned the second-best mark (24.48) this season in the 50 free and is close to earning a berth in the 200 free.

She holds team records in the 50, 100 and 200 freestyle and as a member of the 200 freestyle relay. The relay record (1.45.7) was broken by Findlan, juniors Madison Keck and Audra Morgan and sophomore Mackenzie Meyers at the WPIAL finals last season.

Findlan qualified for WPIALs last year in the 50, 100 and 200 freestyle, along with the 200-yard individual medley.

“This senior swim season started off with some challenges, getting used to new protocols and also having the extended break during December,” Findlan said. “That break shortened our practice time. We’ve gotten into a good routine, however, and I feel like I’m in a good place for this time of year.”

Findlan has a 4.18 GPA and plans to major in biology in college.

“I have been accepted, but I have not selected a school,” she said. The accomplished athlete is a member of the National Honor Society and Big Jag Little Cub and also swims for the Bethel Park Aquatics club team. She volunteered with the summer reading program at Jefferson Hills Library when it was open prior to the pandemic.

“Training for this season has been different with new challenges,” Findlan said. “I am grateful for the opportunity to practice and swim during these times. I would like to thank all my coaches for being so supportive, especially over this past year.”

Through Feb. 7, TJ’s girls team was undefeated in Section 5-AA with wins against Belle Vernon, Steel Valley, Uniontown and Ringgold. The Jaguars had three section meets remaining on their schedule, against McKeesport, South Park and Elizabeth Forward.

“We have a good core of kids coming in (to practice) with a business-like mentality to work toward their goals,” Peters said. “Their determination to set and pursue personal and team goals, even if they have to make allowances for the limitations as a result of covid, is something I consider a highlight.

“Overall, I am very proud of our team. From the brand new, first-time swimmers to our seasoned veterans, I am pleased with their attitude and willingness to work through whatever circumstances are thrown at us to focus on making something out of our season. I feel for the new swimmers, hoping that if they like it this year they will discover that it, like so many other things in life, is so much better when there isn’t a global pandemic going on.

“Our more experienced kids have a better perspective and idea of what needs to be accomplished and have been a big help in trying to keep things pointed in the right direction.”

Those “more experienced” swimmers include seniors Soliana Porter, Mia Olsen, Karly Kramer, Riley Hill, Isabelle Yancura and Findlan for the girls.

The junior class is represented on the girls team by Keck, Morgan, Julia Rayman, Madelyn Panaiia, Sadie Marlow, Faith Krueger, Riley Baker, Rylee Pristas, Hayley Maizer, Ella Radakovich, Lilliana Cooke, Megan Rozanski and Leanna Ziccardi.

TJ’s boys team is a senior-laden group thanks to the likes of Luke Pletz, Ian Majetic, Alex Folino, Carson Arthrell, Matt Kail, Alex Bobak, Steve Larkin, Cole Vernet, Matt Sonnett and Christian Colosimo. Evan Savikas, Jake Crans, Jesse Keeney and Luke Leccia are juniors.

“A theme of emphasis this season has been on individual and team ownership,” Peters said. “Taking control of what we can and dealing better with what we can’t are important pieces of any season, but even moreso now.

“We started by taking one day at a time. The plan to be at our best at the end of the season has not changed. My goal from day one was to provide a place where each of our athletes could succeed.”

Pletz has been the anchor on the boys team for the past two years. He was a WPIAL qualifier in the 100 butterfly, 100 backstroke and 200 IM last season and set the team record in the 100 butterfly.

“Luke and Hallie are both leaders by example,” said Penn last season. “They are very well-respected in our program and school and are involved in other activities.

“Both have a lot of experience at championship meets, and they work to help motivate our other swimmers to achieve goals.”

Along with the 16 seniors and 17 juniors, there are 18 sophomores and 13 freshmen in the TJ program.

Sophomore swimmers include Meyers, Kasuba Chibuye, Sarah Berendowski, Emily Panaiia, Ava Colosimo, Alexis Findlan, Olivia Majetic, Samantha Withers, Riley Dorsey, Kaylin Peters, Brianna Sobeck, Jayla Hajiyev and Giavanna Solomon among the girls and Aidan Stella, Nathan Maksin, Christopher Fullard, Carter Dalton and Christopher Bobak among the boys.

Addison Arndt, Grace Fluhme, Mariyah Gobrich, Brooke Barilla, Ally Elkowitz, Marina Sestito, Corrin Budday, Celina McElhinny, Morgan Dixon and Kacie Haberman are freshmen prospects on the girls squad.

Anthony Lauso, Ryan Ferrington and Stephan Mirtchev are the freshmen on the boys team.

Arthrell and Arndt are diving specialists for the Jaguars, who did not have their own home pool until last year.

The 25-yard pool at the new high school is a beautifully built, state-of-the-art indoor venue located in the TJ aquatic center.

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