Early in the morning on Jan. 8, the Mars Area High School swimming team shivered in the cold Pine-Richland pool.
Mars shares Pine-Richland's pool, because the Planets do not have their own. On that particular winter's day, the heat had been off overnight and the pool hadn't warmed up in time for the Planets' morning practice.
"They were a little chilly," Mars coach Heidi Brandon recalled. "So I kept them moving."
When asked if the cold temperatures made the Planets swim faster, Brandon answered: "No, they just shivered a lot."
Icy practices, a shared pool, and only 13 swimmers on the girls' side -- these are situations that might pose difficulty for many swimming teams. But the Mars girls motor on, ready to compete in any event to which they are called.
Before Christmas, Mars competed against Section 2-AAA's Hampton. Mars usually competes in Section 3-AA, but the school size difference didn't stop the Planets girls team from contending.
Hampton won the 50-yard freestyle. The Talbots also swept the dives -- a predicament that gave Mars the task of making up a 13-point deficit.
So Mars scrapped and swam. Maggie Gruber, a four-time WPIAL champion and Virginia Tech signee, won the 200-yard individual medley as well as the 100-backstroke. Junior Caroline Pacey won the 200-yard freestyle event for Mars, and junior Nicole Parrish won the 100 butterfly.
But the 500-yard freestyle race became the go-ahead race for the Planets. Senior Phoebe Pierre and junior Amanda Alikhani skillfully secured first and second place in the event. But junior Jessica Ott had a close battle with Hampton's Samantha Petrisko for third place.
Petrisko's lane was between Alikhani's and Pierre's. Ott still swam fast enough to beat Petrisko. The race occurred in front of a packed pool deck of fans from both Hampton and Mars.
In the end, Mars tied Hampton, but the event marked a significant comeback for the small Planets team.
"I have a group of girls who can really swim a lot of different events," said Brandon. "We've been able to win different meets because of moving swimmers around. You can't be able to swim only one event."
Even a swim team of 13 (plus six divers) is a little like a game of dice. Each time the dice are rolled, a different configuration comes up. Between school plays, concerts and illnesses, a different core of Mars swimmers shows up to catch the bus for meets every time.
"I haven't left the school with the same lineup twice," said Brandon.
As tricky as it can be for Brandon to choose which swimmers will swim a meet's events, the Mars team gets underway. They show up at their school, have dinner together, and head to their meets.
"The girls say, 'Whatever you need to put me in so that we can win today,'" said Brandon.
The selflessness is a definite advantage for the Planets.
Brandon added that the selflessness is nicely balanced by internal competition. The configuration of Mars' relays, like those of many teams, are not carved in stone. Even in Mars' frigid Jan. 8 practice, the girls competed against each other with the relays in mind.
"As in any sport, each member knows who's working the hardest and putting in the most time," Brandon said. "It's friendly, but definitely competitive."
Although it may seem difficult to be a skeleton crew of nomadic swimmers, the Mars girls pull together and jump at the challenges. Brandon even noted that the majority of Mars' swimmers take advanced placement classes, and that the underclassmen are influenced by the high academic standards of their upper-class counterparts. The younger swimmers often choose an "AP" schedule after seeing what classes their teammates take.
"Not only are they getting up early and swimming in the morning and at night, they work hard on their academics and study together," Brandon said.
Overall, the Planets' full days unify and strengthen the team.
"I think it absolutely pulls them together," Brandon said. "It makes them very organized -- they don't have much down time."