South Xtra: Bethel Park diver keeping her eyes on WPIAL prize

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There's a certain "Zen" required for high school diving.

For Bethel Park's Ashley Sams, it comes from the drive for WPIAL and state honors.

Although Sams is a veteran senior diver, she faced a challenge on Jan. 10 as the Black Hawks played host to Chartiers Valley in a dual meet. The Colts' Maria Lohman was ready for Bethel Park's board. The week was a "fronts" week; a week in which the PIAA required one front dive with a degree of difficulty of 2.0 or less.

Sams knew Lohman would choose very difficult dives for the remaining, or "optional," five dives. So Sams decided to double up on "inwards," or dives that begin as the diver faces the pool deck and flips in the same direction. Sams' favorite dive was the inward double.

Sams stood with her back to the water before taking flight. In the air, she did two flips before her toes hit the water.

In the end, Lohman's degrees of difficulty allowed her to best Sams, who came in second.

"Maria is a very tough competitor," Sams said. "She and I are actually on the same club team [Pitt Aquatic Club]," Sams added. "During practice, she pushes me to do very well. Being able to compete against her was a lot of fun."

As of Jan. 15, Sams had the second highest diving score in WPIAL Class AAA. Her best score so far is 259.80. The top score belonged to Lohman, at 309.2.

Bethel Park diving coach Eric Becker noted that although Sams placed first in all of her 2011-12 dual meets, she got second places twice this year. The first time was against Moon's Heather Lonkert, another Pitt Aquatic Club teammate, and the second was against Lohman.

The field of diving competition is getting tougher and tougher, but Sams avoids a case of the nerves. She centers herself using the promise of the WPIAL championships.

"If you perform 'not-up-to-expectations' in a dual meet," Becker said, "it's still a disappointment but your goal is the end of the season. As long as you're continuing to better your own personal skills, dual meets are just another way of preparing for the end of the season."

Sams' concentration on the postseason has allowed her to excel since early in her diving career. A former gymnast, she joined the Pitt Aquatic Club during her freshman year with the goal of becoming a diver.

"My dad actually suggested diving," said Sams about how she first decided to make the transition.

She sustained an injury that caused her to quit gymnastics. During her time away from it, Sams ran track and participated in "movement" gymnastics, or gymnastics without high-impact tumbling. One day, Sams' father spoke with a Bethel Park swim parent, and he learned that the Black Hawks needed divers.

"So I just 'manned up' and tried out for the diving team," said Sams.

She learned to dive at the Pitt Aquatic Club, and took her newfound abilities to Bethel Park. Sams' acrobatic skills vaulted her ahead in diving.

"She took to it pretty quickly," Becker said. "It's always a difficult learning curve, but she picked it up very fast."

Sams qualified for the WPIAL championships her freshman year (the minimum score for Class AAA girls' divers is 170 points). She qualified for the PIAA state competition in both her sophomore and junior years. In Sams' junior year, she placed fourth at the state meet. This year, her personal goal is to place third at states.

Sams elaborated on the composure she uses to achieve her goals: "During diving, you have to stay very relaxed even if you are in a high-pressure situation, like practice or competing.

"In a really tough competition, you can't psych yourself out or else you'll probably mess up. Treat the meet as though it's a practice, and you're more likely to dive your best."

Sams added that Becker has been instrumental in helping her with the mental aspect of diving competition. Before she dives, Becker walks Sams through the fundamentals of each dive and helps her to visualize it.

The meet against Chartiers Valley passed, and Bethel Park competed against Mt. Lebanon last Thursday. Unsurprisingly, Sams won the diving event for Bethel Park.

"Ashley took first by a lot," said Becker.

He explained that although Sams is driven by thoughts of WPIALs and states, she also carries the goal of contributing to her team's score. The Bethel Park girls ended up defeating Mt. Lebanon, 54-47.

Next year, Sams will dive for East Carolina, a university program she chose for its school atmosphere and team spirit.

But for now, Sams dives to win for the Bethel Park team. She enjoys the way the Black Hawks support each other through every competition.

"It's the team bonding activities that we do," Sams said. "You have a good support system behind you if you're on the board or the starting blocks, before the meet, during the meet and after the meet."

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