Van Vladricken, Gibbons carrying on Ridley tradition

RIDLEY TWP. — Even as he glances up at the banner heralding a pair of state championships, Ridley diving coach John Dyer is reticent to take any semblance of credit. Luck, Dyer insists, was behind the run of 11 straight seasons of divers representing the Green Raiders at the PIAA Championships, capturing 13 medals from 2001-11, including a pair of golds thanks to Josh Bonner in 2003 and 2004. Dyer’s role in that dominant decade, he admits with earnest humility, was to simply manage the fortuitous pipeline that produced one standout after another.

After a three-year drought, Ridley’s storied diving lineage appears poised for another boom.

Friday’s District One meet at North Penn will feature four Green Raiders, the maximum allowed entries, including two divers with a chance to end Ridley’s rare three-year dry spell.

Juniors Ricky Van Vladricken and Gene Gibbons are well-acquainted with the history of Ridley diving. Gibbons acquired the diving itch at age 5 at Nassau Swim Club, always knowing he was destined to dive at the scholastic level. Van Vladricken, whose younger brother Ryan will also compete at districts, was steeped in the tradition at Ridley Park Swim Club, coached by none other than Josh and Justin Bonner.

The storied legacy of Ridley diving scarcely needs to be explained to them.

“Ridley diving is definitely something that we really talk about all the time,’ Ricky Van Vladricken said. “It’s a great honor diving here and stuff like that, all the good divers that came through. It’s just an honor diving here and representing Ridley.’

Diving has always been an somewhat unlikely point of pride at Ridley. In a district where swimming power has defused outward toward behemoth districts North Penn, Central Bucks and Council Rock, to have such diving power concentrated at a relatively modest-sized school like Ridley is remarkable. Beyond the champions and the medals, the Delaware County diving records were clad in green until being usurped by Episcopal Academy’s Josh Owsiany in the last two seasons, with 2004 grad Josh Bonner holding the six-dive mark and 2007 grad Ian Jevnick owning the 11-dive record.

The growth process was necessarily collaborative, with Dyer learning alongside his pupils how to foster, then sustain, an elite program.

“We would learn together,’ Dyer said. “A lot of the big dives, we learned together. It’s been a long run for me at Ridley, and we’ve had a lot of success. (Longtime boys swimming coach Kurt) Slenn was a part of it, most of it. And he built this program. I’m really happy with the amount of numbers that we’ve had all these years, and the dedication that the kids give us at this program.’

While Dyer won’t admit it, he’s had an undeniable hand the program flourishing. Instances like Monday afternoon’s session are a perfect example: Instead of the solitary practices divers are often confined to, he opened up the Ridley pool to others in the area. Joining his districts quartet were Central League champ Brian Layden of Springfield (who normally practices at Ridley in the evening) and Strath Haven’s Eleni Pappas, the runner-up at girls Centrals and the top Delco performer at districts last season.

That community aspect is an extension of what Ridley diving — through its middle school and the four feeder clubs within the district — has cultivated.

Gibbons and Van Vladricken have a chance to reestablish the program on the districts and states level, authoring a new legacy and maybe even a new streak of states participants, which go to the top 10 divers in each gender at districts. Gibbons, who was 22nd at districts last season, finished fourth in last week’s league meet. His focus has mainly been on getting to districts, with states as a longer-term goal.

“It’s to just be the best that you can be,’ Gibbons said. “It’s not really on someone else or anything else. But definitely the history of this diving program definitely reflects on how I want myself to dive and my teammate to dive.’

Whatever happens Friday, the Ridley contingent will have a unique identity on deck, one that runs deeper than one meet.

“When you walk in, everybody just knows that Ridley is great at diving,’ Van Vladricken said. “It’s just something to keep you up when you go down. There’s always that legacy at Ridley.’

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Opportunities exist for Delco divers to head to states, with four of the 2014 states qualifiers in each gender having graduated. Haverford’s Steve Szathmary and Will Canny have assembled strong performances after competing at districts last year, Szathmary leading the Delco contingent with a 14th-place finish. Central League runner-up Dean Allred of Garnet Valley can also bank on District One know-how, having finished 24th last season.

The girls meet Saturday morning will feature Pappas, who was 15th last season at districts, one spot ahead of Central League champ Morgan Kovatch of Garnet Valley. Radnor’s Nicole Cohen, Strath Haven’s Phil-Ann Dixon and Kovatch’s younger sister, Ashley, will likely all be in the mix as well.

The move from Centrals’ six-dive competition to the 11-dive format of districts could be advantageous for Pappas, who shone over the extended program last season and is eager for another crack at states.

“I’m really excited,’ she said. “I know that there are a lot of great divers, and it should be a really great meet. … (Making states) would mean that everything I worked for this year is worth it.’

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