Success builds at Upper Moreland

This year was a very successful season for Upper Moreland swimming and diving, highlighted, of course, by the boys team lifting the team title in the District One Class AA championship. While the Golden Bears swimmers performed great, it could be argued that it was the divers who won the meet.

“We had three divers at districts and all three of them scored points,’ Upper Moreland diving coach Bob Israel said. “That was basically the difference, and I’m not going to say it’s just because of the divers, that we won the meet.’

Junior Dan Wilcox was one of the divers that scored 17 of those coveted team points en route to a second place finish with a score of 403 points, securing his second straight trip to states.

“It felt amazing that I could contribute to the team to help win districts,’ Wilcox said. “It feels good knowing I could help my team out in a way so that together as a team we can win districts.’

Making his state debut last season, Wilcox had to deal with both the emotions and the competition level that comes with diving in a state meet. This year Wilcox is more emotionally and physically ready to compete.

“My first year going into it I was a nervous wreck,’ Wilcox said. “This year I’m hoping to come up to states with a much better attitude and a stronger appearance to show everyone what I’m really capable of.’

While the competition is very strong in the boys meet, Israel thinks if Wilcox puts together a good meet he should be able to finish in the top eight this time around after a 13th-place finish a year ago.

“If he does as well as he’s capable of, I think he could end up in the top eight,’ Israel said. “There [are] a lot of good divers this year in (Class) AA and it’s going to be a well contested meet.’

Another diver making her second state appearance is junior Shannon Chambers. After finishing fourth at the district meet a year ago and the third place diver declined a bid to the state meet, Chambers filled the spot. This season Chambers finished second in districts and earned her trip to states outright.

“I know what to expect this year,’ Chambers said. “It’s not quite as stressful as it is going in not knowing.’

With only two automatic qualifying spots available at districts in Class AA, Chambers has had the unfortunate task of knowing that a teammate of hers, Sydney Szopo (or her sister Natalee who was there when Chambers was a freshman), was all but guaranteed one of those spots.

“Diving with Sydney is great,’ Chambers said. “I’ve been diving with her for like as long as I can remember. She’s such a supportive teammate and it helps alleviate pressure.’

Israel explained that for Chambers to dive behind Szopo actually helps her because it allows her to enter events somewhat under the radar as the spotlight is on Szopo.

“I think it’s been a good learning experience for Shannon,’ Israel said of Chambers diving with Szopo. “Shannon is really not yet the kind of individual who wants to have the spotlight on her. I think she almost prefers to perform quietly, yet efficiently.’

Chambers also explained the added pressure this year as three Bears were vying for the two spots. Yet another example of good fortunes striking the Upper Moreland program as it was able to get a third diver into states as freshman Colleen Rodriguez will be making her state debut.

“The most stressful part about that this year was the fact that there was three of us,’ Chambers said. “It’s kind of hard because you have to compete against them. Obviously with Sidney coming in first, we kind of just expected that, so it was me and my teammate competing for one spot which is nerve-wracking.’

“The fact that Colleen will be going up there this year as a freshman is a wonderful opportunity to experience diving at that level,’ Israel said. “I’m not sure what to expect from Colleen. She does manage her nerves pretty well, she seems to be a better meet diver. When the competition is around she seems to step up and meet the challenge, but at this level I’m just not exactly sure how she’s going to fare on the big stage.’

For Szopo, this will be her fourth and final trip to states. Up until this year the career narrative has been pretty clear for her.

As a freshman and sophomore she finished second at districts, both years being beat out only by her sister. As a junior last season, Szopo started to form her own identity and won the district title that troubled her the previous two years. This season she successfully defended her district title, but it’s no secret what is the only missing piece on both her and her sister’s high school diving resumes.

“That’s really what I’m going for this year, that’s really what I’m striving for,’ Szopo said of becoming a state champion. “I really would love it. My sister never got it and that would definitely be the topping on my cake.’

Success at the state level can be fleeting and even Szopo herself has experienced that. After a fourth place finish at states her freshman year, Szopo found herself having to settle for eighth as a sophomore before rebounding nicely as a junior to take third. Both Szopo and Israel believe the fourth time should be the charm.

“From so many meets of the big meets, suburban’s and districts, I’ve realized I’m better when I’m relaxed, having fun, not nervous,’ Szopo said. “That’s really how I’m taking it this year, I want to go in so excited. Showing [Rodriguez] what states is like, how she’s going. [Chambers] also, this is her second year, I really want to show them that having fun is the main goal of the states meet and also when you have fun you’re going to succeed.’

“I am quite confident that she will be at the top of the list,’ Israel said. “I think it’s going to be a challenge for Sydney, but I truly believe that she is capable of winning the state title.’

It remains to be seen if Sydney will be able to capture what has thus far eluded the Szopos, but she has decided that none of her college diving career will be spent in the shadows of her sister. Szopo recently decided that she will dive for La Salle University next year and as she put it has “no thought’ in joining her sister at Towson University.

“It was really my top choice throughout my college choices and I was really nervous, I mean four years of my life I had to choose. I pushed it off, but I knew it’s where I wanted to be.’

During Israel’s seven years as Upper Moreland’s diving coach the Bears have experienced great success as a program. While Israel struggles to come up with an explanation as to exactly why or how it has happened, it’s certainly a tradition that divers like Szopo are proud to be a part of.

“The freshman that made it to states, Colleen Rodriguez, I had to loan her my sister’s jacket and it said ‘ Szopo’ on it because she didn’t have a jacket,’ Szopo said. “She said, ‘ I really feel like a Szopo, I made it to states as a freshman, I think I can be a Szopo,’ and just to hear that people really look up to my sister and I, I wanted to cry.’

“I’m kind of at a loss to explain it quite honestly,’ Israel said of the success of the program. “Whenever I’m asked that question, I just always say I’ve been blessed with talented athletes who have come in, agreed to work hard, practice hard every day, for the most part try to listen to what I tell them, and I’ve had a lot of support.’

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