East Xtra: Penn Hills swimming feeds off a proud tradition

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The Penn Hills swimming team has a new coaching staff this season, all of whom are Penn Hills swimming or diving alumni.

Now, the Indians are excelling under their direction.

On Jan. 3 when Penn Hills played host to Fox Chapel, the Indians boys team were ready to thrash to the finish. It held a slim 86-85 lead going into the meet's final event, the 400-yard freestyle relay. This meant that which ever team won the relay would win the meet. As the race got under way, the spectators were on the edges of their seats.

Freshman Norman Gregory, sophomore Chris Fenoglietto and senior Jake Saltzman gave no slack to the Foxes. When Penn Hills senior Gabe Larson dived in to swim the anchor leg, it was an even race.

"We came out on top by one second," recalled Indians coach Bob Malinoski.

Penn Hills won the race in 3:25.18 versus Fox Chapel's 3:26.30.

"It was an exciting event," he said.

With the 400-relay win, Penn Hills won the Section 3-AAA meet against Fox Chapel, 96-89. The bright spot was typical of this season's unified Penn Hills team.

Malinoski explained that he swam for Penn Hills in high school, and so did assistant coach John Reish as well as 10th-year diving coach Maureen Scurro. This year is Malinoski's first as head coach after being an assistant coach for the past three. With Reish on board, the athletes now have a new look to their leadership, all with Penn Hills roots.

"I think the team listens more about what we have to say when they know about our swimming backgrounds," Malinoski said.

The listening and the hard work are paying off. Times have already dropped in significant chunks since the Penn Hills staff came together. In a Jan. 14 non-section meet against North Hills, Malinoski pitted Penn Hills junior Matt Kegges against freshman teammate Andrew Rectenwald in the 500-yard freestyle race. Malinoski suspected the two would swim their best races of the season to date.

"I put two of our distance swimmers against each other in hopes that they would race," Malinoski said.

The pair had been posting times within a second of each other.

As Malinoski had expected, Kegges and Rectenwald fought the race out at North Hills. The two swam next to each other, neck-and-neck and finished the race one and two.

"These two ended up dropping about 10 seconds from each of their [past] times," Malinoski said. "I had been telling them the last couple of weeks that they needed to do whatever they could to beat the person next to them."

Malinoski noted that victories have often been in the hands of Penn Hills' veterans.

Larson is basically the leader of the relays. An established state-level competitor, Larson has broken school records this year in the 50-, 100-, and 200-yard freestyle events. He also holds school records in the 100-yard breaststroke, backstroke, and 200-yard IM.

"Gabriel Larson is by far one of the best swimming athletes to come through the Penn Hills School District," said Malinoski. "He is motivated to try and get the 100-fly and 500-free records as well as a few relay records before the end of his senior year."

In spite of the relay results Penn Hills has obtained this season, not all of Penn Hills' freestyle relay spots are set.

"We do have some [competition] between two seniors -- captain Bobby Fello and Jake Saltzman -- for that last spot in the free relays. This competition is good for the team, as it drives these kids to work harder as the season moves along," Malinoski said.

With a Penn Hills-centered coaching staff and ever-accelerating swimmers, the Penn Hills boys' swim team is out to decimate records and win titles.

"We are very close to beating our team records in all three relays this year," Malinoski said. "Some of these records are 15-plus years old. Between now and the end of the season, we have the difficult task to determine which relays we will make the strongest for WPIALs ... We are very optimistic for this season."

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