The West Allegheny High School girls' swimming team does a fine balancing act ... maybe worthy of an appearance on "America's Got Talent."
The Indians balance veteran talent with emerging contenders. The combinations of swimmers are not only productive now, but also hold potential for the postseason and seasons to come.
The Indians placed third of 11 teams at their own holiday invitational meet. Coach Bob Miller has put together a tough schedule for his Class AA squad, and the Indians have already faced Class AAA powers Bethel Park and Peters Township. Although the Indians did not win their meets against Bethel or Peters, the West Allegheny girls had some good races.
For example, senior Kara Kaulius went neck-and-neck with Peters Township's Saoirse Palu-Benson for most of the 500-yard freestyle race. Kaulius used her height and her long stroke to retain her edge. Palu-Benson relied on endurance to keep moving with windmill-like power.
Kaulius knew that one of her advantages was turn efficiency; a bonus she'd gained through careful drilling. With 350 yards remaining, Kaulius took a permanent lead on Palu-Benson.
Kaulius touched in 5:15 and won the race. But she wasn't the only West Allegheny swimmer to experience a great race against a Class AAA competitor.
In addition to Kaulius, Sydney Mangis and Nadiya Wahl are among West Allegheny's other senior veterans.
West Allegheny has younger swimmers who are already producing for the Indians. In a December non-section meet against Bethel Park, sophomore Kiera Acitelli and freshman Hannah Charlton competed in a heated 100-yard butterfly event against the Black Hawks' Allie Brinkhoff.
"Our swimmers went two-three [behind Brinkhoff]," Miller recalled. "They were right on [Brinkhoff's] doorstep. They got some nice early-season swims and got to see what they were made of."
Alongside Charlton and Acitelli, sophomore Casey Tokarski and freshman Jenna Josie are young swimmers who are competing for the present while improving for the future.
Miller noted the significance of West Allegheny's current building phase.
"Last season was a tough one because we lost so many key swimmers [from the 2010-11 team]," he said.
As good as Kaulius is now, Miller felt that the 2012 graduation departures were the equivalent of three of her.
"Last year we lost three 'Karas,'" he said.
In the spring, West Allegheny will graduate Kaulius, Wahl, and Mangis. For this reason, Miller considers the current season's contributions by Acitelli, Charlton, Tokarski and Josie to be of paramount importance. Miller feels that the four will be the teams "bread and butter" at the time of this year's WPIAL championships.
Tokarski and Josie are both sprint freestylers, while Acitelli and Charlton are both butterflier/backstrokers. Miller added that Josie is versatile and can also swim backstroke races.
In all cases, the underclassmen are training on technique with Miller the same way Kaulius has. Case in point: turn efficiency.
"Early on, we'll take a couple of times each week, and we'll go sideways in the pool and have to sprint-kick underwater," Miller said. "We really want to work on that burst coming off the wall for about 12 or 13 yards."
Miller noted that swimmers have a 15-yard mark that they are not permitted to pass under water. Interestingly, the four underclassmen have had different results in the turn training.
"Casey has great leg strength off the wall, and Hannah has a great dolphin kick," said Miller. "I would put Hannah and Casey up close to Kara [in terms of turn efficiency]."
The section season began for the WPIAL last Thursday, but West Allegheny still competed at a Jefferson High School meet in Massillon, Ohio, last Saturday. As of that time, the Indians had already had nine girls record WPIAL-qualifying times.
As the face of the West Allegheny girls' swimming team continues to shift with the graduation of experienced swimmers, Miller summarized the situation.
"It's forever changing," he said. "But that's what I love about high school swimming. Each year as a coach you have to rededicate and re-challenge yourself."