North Xtra: Seneca Valley swimming taking unusual route

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Seneca Valley second-year swim coach Brian Blackwell pointed out that there are six events at every swim meet that are freestyle-based and mostly sprinting.

The Raiders aim to master these, but also to break the paradigm of the high school freestyle focus.

In a December meet against traditionally strong Fox Chapel, the Raiders showed they could crawl before they walked. They were in a close meet against the Foxes, who had gained the lead off their diving superiority.

The 100-yard freestyle proved to be the go-ahead race for Seneca Valley. Katie Miller, Katie Burkett and freshman Mara Dunning took places one, two and three to give their team scoring a boost, but the Raiders weren't out of the woods yet.

"It came down to the last relay," Blackwell said of the 400-yard freestyle relay.

Two Seneca Valley relay units were called to the blocks. They each had a big responsibility.

"If we took first and third, we'd win [the meet]. If we got second and third, we'd tie."

But any placements worth fewer than 10 points would result in a loss for Seneca Valley's girls.

Miller swam the third leg in the 400 relay. Her teammates, Burkett and Jessica Morris, had set her up well, and she accelerated past Fox Chapel.

"Katie Miller really pulled ahead," Blackwell recalled.

Madisen Tretter anchored the relay for Seneca Valley, resulting in a definitive first-place finish.

But what of the Raiders' other relay unit?

Jackie Curtz, Kassi Grumski, Sadie Lee and Holly Sauer did not get that much-hoped-for third place in the 400-yard freestyle relay against Fox Chapel ... they took second, instead.

The final score of the Seneca Valley girls' meet against Fox Chapel was 95-91. The Raiders' win held ramifications, however.

"Fox Chapel is an extremely tough team," Blackwell said. "The one thing that really played into our favor was that we had strategically set the lineup."

The Raiders have 13 swimmers on their boys' team and 16 with the girls. Both totals include divers. The combined total of 29 does not exceed the girls' side from a larger program such as North Allegheny's. For this reason, Blackwell is helping Seneca Valley to become versatile (event-wise) to strategize the lineup in difficult meets.

"I think the tradition in the last few years is that high school swimming has been more sprint and middle distance," Blackwell said. "When I came in [as coach], the thing that was really lacking was a secondary event."

Blackwell explained that when swimmers lacked a strong secondary event, their teams were at risk to lose points.

To combat the risk of technical point losses, Seneca Valley's swimming teams train with an individual-medley focus.

"We're getting more and more IM-style in our training," Blackwell said. "Everyone has to have an 'off' stroke."

Seneca Valley swimmers practice an underwater butterfly kick in order to strengthen their "off" strokes. This means that the Raiders must do a half-length (on either their backs or their stomachs) without breathing and propelled by a butterfly kick. Blackwell added that the team also uses hypoxic work, or controlled breathing exercises, to improve overall efficiency.

Tretter, a senior, has dropped times markedly in her "off" stroke (the breaststroke) since beginning training with Blackwell's IM focus.

"Madisen Tretter was a breastroker when she was in her early teens before high school," Blackwell said. "When she got to high school, she had fallen off with it."

Likewise, Tretter had been timed at around the 1:18 mark in the 100-yard breaststroke early in the season. But by late December, Tretter could swim the event in 1:08.

"We've seen a significant drop in her times last season through this season," Blackwell said.

Event versatility will serve the Seneca Valley swimming teams well; they are scheduled to face Moon today.

The Raiders also swam against Mt. Lebanon in a non-section meet Tuesday. But Blackwell hopes that the strength to step outside one's comfort zone will help the Raiders in life as well as swimming.

"You can't just write something off," he said. "Hopefully, this serves the athletes through life. They'll have the ability to do what they need to do as long as they work hard for it."

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