South Xtra: Mt. Lebanon/Upper St. Clair coaching switch creates a buzz

SWIMMING

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The Mt. Lebanon High School swimming program is at a crossroads.

This season, the Blue Devils have, in effect, traded coaches with Upper St. Clair. The results have been a mix of emotions, victories and new beginnings.

That was especially true last month when Tom Donati accompanied the Mt. Lebanon swimming team to a meet at Upper St. Clair. Donati had coached the Panthers for the three preceding years, but left to take over the Mt. Lebanon program this school year.

"I live in Mt. Lebanon and I have a young daughter," Donati explained. "She swims -- she's in sixth grade."

Donati said in a few more years, his daughter will be swimming for Mt. Lebanon's high school team.

"I don't want to miss her doing something she loves because I'm somewhere else," Donati said. "I know in [the future] I'd have a tough time coaching, especially against her."

Likewise, Donati was filled with emotion as he re-entered the Upper St. Clair pool with the Blue Devils. The Blue Devils reacted as well -- their former coach, Dave Schraven, was at the helm for the Panthers.

"It was a little odd that our former coach was coaching at USC, but I think the swimmers were respectful of the situation," Mt. Lebanon's Meghan Schilken said. "It was a great environment and a great meet."

"It was a little weird," the Blue Devils' Katie Ford echoed. "But I wouldn't say anybody on our teams has anything against [Schraven], and it was good to see a familiar face."

In the end, Upper St. Clair won both the boys and girls meets by identical 60-42 scores. But there were enough highlights at the meet for both teams to come away feeling pretty good about themselves.

"It was a really exciting meet and both teams swam exceptionally well," Schraven said. "I was very pleased with how my swimmers competed."

Schraven said his goal as a coach is to get his team to swim as fast as possible, and he felt that the visit from Mt. Lebanon aided that goal.

"The faster the other team swims, the faster we'll swim," he said.

Donati's emotions were similar. He'd built relationships with Upper St. Clair swimmers.

"Some of the kids weren't happy when I left ... and when I did leave, I had to go next door to their competition."

It was the first time many of the Upper St. Clair swimmers saw Donati since he'd taken the job at Mt. Lebanon.

The pool deck was full of friends, family, and alumni from the neighboring districts. But even with such a charged atmosphere, there was only one thing for the swimmers to do.

"They responded like kids -- kids adapt," Donati said. "They adapt better than us old people."

As the crowds screamed and cheered, pool records were smashed. Katie Ford, Meghan Schilken, Veronica Bogdanski, and Anna McGlade took the girls' 200-yard freestyle relay in a USC pool record time of 1:38.51. The same crew also set a record in the 400-yard freestyle relay with a time of 3:38.06.

The Blue Devils had gone against their former coach, and set records at Upper St. Clair's pool. Schilken, the lead-off leg swimmer in the 400 relay, had also used her sprinting skills to win the 50-yard freestyle race.

On the Mt. Lebanon boys' side, the medley relay team had a great race. Andrei Mihailescu, Nik Victor, Alex Rice and Michael Yeckley did not win the race for the Blue Devils. But they swam a close race. Upper St. Clair's relay team of Alex Hardwick, Tomos Williams, Ryan Dudzinski and Nikhil Narayanan touched the wall in 1:38.04, 0.41 second before Mt. Lebanon.

"USC and Mt. Lebanon -- anything they do has a tradition," Donati said. "They're very competitive in football, basketball, baseball ... neither place likes to lose to the other. Plus, the meet had two coaches who know each other's teams very well.

"I was glad it was over because of all the emotions. Sixty-two kids went home that day with no voices -- they were pretty drained."

That's the number of swimmers on Mt. Lebanon's roster.

Donati still felt that the most overriding effect of the coaching trade was that it made both the Upper St. Clair and Mt. Lebanon teams better.

"It was good for our programs to move forward," Donati said. "Both teams, both organizations make swimming in the South Hills better."

His counterpart at Upper St. Clair agreed.

"Obviously, there were a lot of interesting dynamics at that meet," Schraven said. "But mostly everyone was really just happy to see an exciting meet. Ultimately, I feel like it's not about the coaches -- it's about the swimmers. Our job is to do whatever we can so that they can do their best."

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