WPIAL’s top swimmers gear up for this weekend’s championship meets

Friday, March 5, 2021 | 11:19 AM

Josh Matheny never thought he would be in position to win a WPIAL swimming championship in his home pool.

But the Upper St. Clair senior, the three-time defending Class AAA boys champion in the 100-yard breaststroke, will have that chance Sunday as the meet comes to Upper St. Clair High School.

The move from Pitt’s Trees Pool because of covid capacity limitations is one of a number of changes to the grandest swimming stage in the WPIAL.

But for veteran swimmers like Matheny, as well as younger upstarts ready to make an impact, the opportunity to have a championship meet at all is something to savor.

“It’s definitely exciting to think it’s actually going to happen,” said Matheny, who is the top seed again in the Class AAA boys 100 breast and the second seed to Seneca Valley junior Daniel Simoes in the 200 individual medley.

“At the beginning of the year, things were up in the air, and it sometimes made training kind of difficult getting into it not knowing if there was going to be anything to work toward. Everyone is ready for that chance to race. That’s the most exciting part.”

The WPIAL swimming community has worked on coming to terms on changes to the championships over the past several weeks.

No spectators will be permitted at the Class AA girls (9:45 a.m. start) and boys (4:20 p.m.) meets on Saturday or the Class AAA meets (9:45 a.m. and 4:20 p.m.) on Sunday.

There are only 16 entries for each individual event and with the exception of a few cases, only 12 in each relay event.

Only the WPIAL champion in each event is guaranteed a spot at the PIAA championships March 19-20 at Cumberland Valley.

For many competitors, like Quaker Valley junior Isabel Huang, the 2020 WPIAL Class AA girls champion in the 200 IM and 100 backstroke, WPIALs will be the first big-meet opportunity since last year’s championships at Pitt’s Trees Pool.

Covid concerns last March caused the PIAA to cancel the entire Class AA state meet at Bucknell. That decision came down as PIAA officials also halted the second day of the Class AAA meet after the morning preliminaries.

“It will be great to get back to racing it a big meet like this,” said Huang, who also won the 200 IM and 100 back at WPIALs as a freshman.

She is the top seed by four seconds in the Class AA girls 200 IM and by six one-hundredths of a second over Mapletown sophomore Ella Menear in the 100 back.

“I know I am going to have some good competition,” Huang said. “I am excited to see how it turns out.”

Others back hoping to defend WPIAL titles are Shady Side Academy sophomore Maeve Kelley (Class AA girls 200 free and 500 free), Laurel Highlands senior Maria Mrosko (Class AA girls 100 fly), Thomas Jefferson senior Hallie Findlan (Class AA girls 100 free), Indiana senior Kyle Thome (Class AA boys 200 free), Montour senior Alex May (Class AA boys 100 back), Neshannock senior Conner McBeth (Class AA boys 50 free) and Belle Vernon senior Ian Shahan (Class AA boys 100 fly and 100 free).

“As far as training, this will be the first meet since last year that I will have a taper under my belt,” said Shahan, a five-time WPIAL individual champion.

“With all I have done to prepare, I am pretty pumped up and ready to go for Saturday. I am excited for one final WPIAL run.”

In Class AAA, Upper St. Clair senior Taylor Connors returns for a title defense in the girls 200 free, while North Allegheny senior Molly Smyers hopes to do the same in the 500 free. Smyers is the top seed in the 500, while Connors in the 200 free is seeded second to North Allegheny sophomore Alex Sundgren by five one-hundredths of a second.

Fox Chapel sophomore Sophie Shao hopes for another golden WPIAL performance after capturing last year’s Class AAA girls 100 fly title before also winning the event at states.

Shao is the top seed in both the 100 fly and 200 IM. She and others also are chasing the hallowed WPIAL Class AAA girls 100 fly record of 54.16 set by Penn Hills legend Melanie Buddemeyer in 1983.

Shao swam a 54.74 at WPIALs last year and then clocked a 54.22 at states.

“I am anxious to get in the water and prove myself again,” Shao said. “I feel good right now. I am confident. We’ll see how it goes.”

A number of freshmen anxiously await their opportunity Saturday and Sunday, and some are in position as top seeds. Findlan, for example, expects to have her hands full in the 100 free from the top two seeds, newcomers Katie Jackovic from South Park and Elise Nardozzi from Northgate. Findlan is seeded third.

In boys Class AA, Joseph Roth, a freshman representing Riverside in a co-op with Ellwood City, is the top seed in the 100 back.

Also a member of the Ellwood City boys basketball team, Roth scored 13 points to help the Wolverines upset Avonworth on Thursday in the Class 3A tournament.

Older brother Alexander, a junior, scored 16 points in the game. He also is the fifth seed in the boys 100 free.

All of the WPIAL-championship racing drama Saturday and Sunday will play out in front of the livestream cameras of 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 mlove@triblive.com.

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