Haverford School loaded with talent and experience

HAVERFORD — The week was shaping up as a demoralizing trip for Matt Haigh.

In Indianapolis for the YMCA Long-Course Nationals in late July, Haigh didn’t have the start to the week he wanted. Feeling under the weather, the Ridley YMCA swimmer wasn’t terribly happy with three swims over two days at the Indiana University Natatorium that yielded just one A final.

So with a day to recuperate before his final swim — the 800-meter freestyle — Haigh devised a new plan of attack: “Let’s go out and have fun,’ was how the Haverford School junior recounted it last week.

The result for Haigh was trimming almost 13 seconds from his seed time en route to finishing second in the nation, just .02 seconds behind the winner. It was a reputation-building swim that has garnered Haigh the attention of top-flight programs all over the nation.

And for Haigh, a swimmer for whom thinking in the pool can occasionally be an impediment, there’s an aspect of “the essence of just going for it and getting up and racing,’ that he can draw upon and use as the game plan for future races.

Just as Haigh took a gargantuan step toward the elite level this summer, he hopes to help his Fords take the next step in their program: A return to a top-six finish at the Eastern Interscholastic Championships.

For the last three years, the Fords have placed in the top five of the team standings at the event, peaking at No. 3 in 2012, after never before achieving that elusive top-6 cup. Each season they’ve been tasked with replenishing the talent that propelled them to their goals, including replacing the last two swimmers of the year — Dan McGrath and Jimmy Jameson.

But in a testament to Sean Hansen’s program, the assembly line of talent just keeps humming along, restocking the shelves sufficiently to compete in the Inter-Ac and at Easterns.

This season’s transition isn’t so much a matter of talent as it is leadership. There’s no dearth of ability, whether it’s the All-Delco Haigh or freshman Alex Boratto, who finaled in two events and took a stunning fourth-place finish in the 100 backstroke at Easterns last season.

Instead, the emphasis for senior captains like Ben Nelligan and the coaching staff is perpetuating the team atmosphere that has been at the center of the recent resurgence.

“I think hard work in the pool and team bonding are keys,’ Nelligan said. “We’ve always been a really tight team, but since we’re a really, really young team this year, I think it’s going to take more of that. But as captains, I think we can make that happen.’

The Fords aren’t the deepest of teams numerically. But they boast a rotation of six or so swimmers that is as good as any team in the area, led by Boratto, Nelligan and Haigh. Also in the mix are brothers Charlie and Luke Ryan and new arrival Dave Mitchell. Only Luke Ryan and Nelligan are seniors among that group, and the Fords have the added bonus of a bevy of versatile swimmers, able to compete in multiple specialties and be plugged in at various spots in dual-meet lineups.

The atmosphere those leaders are able to foster will go a long way in determining not just the fortunes of this year’s squad, but also future teams. Even if their talent sets them apart, those top six are constantly working with the rest of the team, trying to pass on lessons and improve the overall level of the squad. It’s an egalitarian mood conducive to improvement across the board.

“Being one of the younger guys doesn’t really matter,’ Boratto said. “We all are the same basically. We all treat each other like we’re the same, and we all motivate each other. No matter what age we are, we basically all treat each other the same.’

Hansen has an advantage this year in that every member of his team trains full-time at the school rather than splitting their training with club teams. That gives the Fords the time needed to bond in the pool.

The leadership spotlight will be shone brightest upon Nelligan and Haigh. Nelligan, primarily a butterflier but one of those talents with the versatility to mix in a couple different strokes and distances, says that the mantle of leadership is something he’s been waiting for his entire high school career.

Even Haigh, who comes off as a little sheepish about his skills outside the pool, has embraced the challenge of being a mentor to younger swimmers. He cited the example of Connor O’Prey, a 2012 All-Delco with whom he also swam at Ridley Y, as someone who provided him the kind of leadership and inspiration that he seeks to emulate.

“I try to lead by example and try to be a role model for kids that aren’t there, because I was in that spot,’ Haigh said. “I really wasn’t there until sixth or seventh grade, and I can see where they are. I’m just trying to help them with motivation like, ‘ let’s go on this one,’ or ‘ two more fast.”

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