Surge of local talent on girls side evident at PIAA Championships

LEWISBURG — For a moment Friday night, Julia Cullen stood shoulder-to-shoulder with Maddie Hart on the podium at Bucknell University’s Kinney Natatorium, Hart on the highest step, Cullen two levels down.

As the swimmers received their PIAA Class AAA medals — gold for Hart, bronze for the freshman Cullen — in the 100 butterfly, the wave of momentum for the Delaware County girls competitors at the meet was just gaining steam.

In that moment Friday, the second time that evening that a championship final featured two Delco girls, Hart and Cullen managed to double the medal haul of the entire Delco boys delegation. Their ascent through the ranks is indicative of a seismic gender shift in overall talent.

“I think this is the first time I’ve seen that shift,’ said Radnor boys coach Tom Robinson, who’s been at the helm of the Raiders for over 30 years and 300 dual-meet wins. “Usually, it’s always been the boys better than the girls. Maybe it’s just a cycle that we’re going through that the girls are getting very good. It’s not the boys going down, it’s just that the boys aren’t as stellar as the girls at the moment.’

The record books bear out that sentiment. The records on the boys side of the ledger are primarily in the custody of Olympian Brendan Hansen and 2012 Haverford grad Shane Ryan, the Penn State junior who has represented the United States internationally. There was a renaissance in the late 90s-early 2000s when Hansen, Eugene Botes of Garnet Valley and supreme sprinter Michael Grube of Upper Darby rewrote the record books, an era not unlike the current one for the girls.

While there have been plenty of strong girls swimmers along the way, few in the last two decades have achieved that level of prestige, and as a result, Delco has developed a reputation as primarily a developer of male talent.

Even if the current crop of girls doesn’t rise to the Olympic level like Botes and Hansen, their accomplishments in the pool are historically significant.

There’s Hart, the Haverford junior who won Delco’s first Class AAA girls individual state title since 1996, then grabbed silver in the 100 backstroke. She turned in the fastest time in county history in both, the latter downing a mark already re-set by Episcopal Academy’s Emma Seiberlich this postseason.

States yielded two medals for Strath Haven’s Frances Resweber, including a county record in the 200 freestyle that banished Olympian Brenda Borgh’s mark from 1977. Resweber’s teammate, Summer Martin, added medals in the 100 and 200 free; in the former, she and Cullen continued toying with the county record, which had stood since Sun Valley’s Christine Gallagher in 1988 but was improved upon four times in two weeks.

The final awards counts skew heavily toward the girls: Seven individual medals were won by four Delco girls, compared to just one (Eli Avart’s fifth in the 100 fly) from the boys. The girls had nine individual finals swims, as opposed to three for the boys.

The relays were even more telling: All five of the girls squads made finals, paced by Haverford’s medal in the medley. The only boys relay representation came via Radnor’s freestyle squads, one of which mustered a consolation final.

While stats are easy to pinpoint, the underlying cause of this swinging of the historic pendulum is less definable. As Robinson asserted, part of it is that the entire contingent of swimmers is improving, even if the growth isn’t necessarily equivalent on both sides.

“I think the coaches are just getting smarter,’ Haverford boys and girls coach Matt Stewart said. “It’s a lot easier to access information on how to work with kids and get them to be faster sooner. I think the sport has changed so much in the past 10-15 years. Gone are the days that we’re just going to pound yards, yards, yards and race pace will come later. You’re seeing a lot more, a lot sooner.’

Other factors play into the development. Robinson, for instance, notes an increased tendency among boys to divide their attentions between multiple sports, something he encourages at younger ages. The resurgence of Suburban Swim Club — where Cullen, Martin and Strath Haven teammate Camille Jablonski, among others, train — has boosted the overall level in the area.

But much of the progress comes down to the zeitgeist of the era in which the current group developed. While they were in the age-group ranks, Pennsylvania girls swimming history was being rewritten at every level by Emily Cameron, Christina Leander, Meaghan Raab, Leah Smith and others, all of whom have advanced to high levels of the collegiate swimming.

On a more local level, buzz has surrounded swimmers like McKenzie Street, a three-time All-Delco at Episcopal Academy, and Val Yoshimura, a Suburban swimmer and senior at Baldwin School who qualified for Olympic Trials in 2012, since they were eight. That hype is magnified in the interconnected web of club swimming, producing a knock-on effect that propels others to strive for more.

“Somebody started a legacy,’ said Stewart, who saw the same effect when Ryan was the local titan. “So when these girls were eight, nine, 10 years old and they were on deck at a meet or even at the club, it was like ‘ I want to be like her someday.’ Kids need role models, and they really are role models for the little guys. They see, ‘ oh that’s how that kid trains.’ A lot of times you’ll hear swimmers say, ‘ I do this because that’s what I saw him do or her do.”

Whatever is behind it, the fact remains that this era appears to have staying power. All of the individual swimmers at states save one (Haverford’s Emily Wolfe) are underclassmen. The last two Daily Times girls swimmers of the year — EA’s Sarah Baturka and Seiberlich — won as freshmen.

As the club calendar careens toward an Olympic year, with berths in trials a potential career-defining accomplishment for many (Seiberlich has already qualified in several events), where the cascade of development leads next is anybody’s guess.

“A lot of it starts at the age-group rankings,’ Stewart said. “If you get one or two girls coming out of one summer swim club, say, it takes something like that to spark a mini-revolution in the area.’

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