North Xtra: Bonding helps Shady Side girls improve

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The Shady Side Academy girls swimming team is like a school of fish -- the Indians are best when they swim together.

Senior captain Destin Groff appreciates that togetherness as much as any Shady Side swimmer.

Last March at Bucknell University, Groff did the backstroke to warm up for the PIAA Class AA championships. But the warning flags that normally hang above the pool were missing -- these flags tell backstrokers when they're approaching a wall. Without that assistance, Groff banged into the wall and sustained a concussion that removed her from Shady Side's lineup.

"She hit the back of her head," Shady Side Academy coach John Landreth recalled. "She did not black out or lose consciousness -- the hit was just in a place where it didn't heal quickly. I've never dealt with anything like that -- it makes me realize we've got a lot to learn [about concussions]."

Groff's concussion affected most strongly her vision. The injury also caused Groff to be sensitive to loud noises and bright lights. Looking up and down at an approaching pool wall or looking side to side to breathe became almost impossible for her. Groff's concussion basically made her unable to carry out many of the actions that are prerequisites for competitive swimmers.

But Groff didn't quit. She did eye exercises and limited her environment as her injury got on the path to healing. Six weeks ago, she got back in the water on her own and began to work. She kept an open dialogue with Landreth about her progress, as Landreth is also Groff's chemistry teacher at Shady Side. Two weeks ago, Groff returned to the pool.

"We're still limiting her environment and still being careful -- it's a learning process every day," said Landreth.

He explained that although Groff is able to practice, the path to competition is still ongoing. Nonetheless, Groff's return has been a spark to her team.

"It's been kind of a catalyst to our team," Landreth said. "It's been really good to have her back, that's been a blast."

The Shady Side girls swimming team shares Landreth's enthusiasm. Senior Maggie Leech, a 100-yard butterfly/freestyle relay specialist, is one of them.

"[Leech] definitely is very enthusiastic, and definitely is a motivator. Maggie is taking extra responsibility for everything right now. She's done just a fantastic job of working super hard in practice. She'll be a big part of WPIAL success for sure. She has definitely been the glue that held us together while Destin was out."

Freshman Caroline Colville has been another "fish" to pull Shady Side's "school" together. As of last Friday, Colville had the top 500-yard freestyle time in Shady Side history with 5:15.8. The same time also put Colville in the top three among WPIAL Class AA reported times.

"That's a great time," Landreth said. "At the end of most years, that would be top 5 or top 4."

For senior Ali Sarner, this season has been one of optimism. Sarner swims backstroke and freestyle events, in which she reached WPIAL qualifying times in the first meet of the season. Last year, it took her until the season's last meet to do that.

"That takes a lot of stress off," Landreth said.

The Indians swam a meet at Knoch on Jan. 10, an 88-80 victory for the girls' team. With Groff back in the Shady Side entourage, the girls' team has 22 members with no divers on the roster. Landreth is excited for the remainder of the season's meets, especially WPIALs.

"We can fill different events; we're a very good sized team," Landreth said. "We've got some people who are super-fast and have qualified for states before ... We've got a lot of different ranges of abilities."

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