The Gateway Gators have registered swimming meet scores in the triple digits and race times in the WPIAL Class AAA top 10 lists.
In reality, the Gators are laughing all the way to their victories.
The boys' team (10-1, 6-0) conducted a "head-shaving party" a few weeks ago. Freshmen all the way up through seniors attended their next practice in various stages of "shorn-ness."
"I had an array," Gators coach Jason Kunkle said. "One kid had 'monk hair' and another had a smiley face on the back of his head. There were also Mohawks and double Mohawks."
Similarly, the girls' team (6-5, 4-2) showed up for their Jan. 24 meet against Penn Hills in "puffy-painted" T-shirts, a la the early 1990s. Kunkle described the shirts as being "very bright and loud."
"When the athletes look back at their experiences, they will remember those kinds of quirky moments," said Kunkle.
He explained that although the Gateway team swims as hard as all the best in the WPIAL, it's the Gators' levity that makes the team unique.
"At practice there are student leaders who lead my exercises," Kunkle said. "They make practice fun by singing songs or just acting silly. Those instances keep practice light."
Kunkle even added that the Gators do "birthday swims." In these, swimmers celebrating birthdays must swim alone while their teammates are on either side of the lane making waves with kickboards. It's almost like a river of rowdy beavers.
"I credit my captains -- I credit my seniors," Kunkle said.
He noted that Gateway's seniors organize cheering efforts at meets and give talks on the bus rides home to motivate their teammates.
So, who are these seniors? In a team of 26 boys and 32 girls, there are only eight.
Katie Beran and Alyssa Grieco are the senior swimmers on the girls' team, accompanied by diver A.J. Benne.
"Alyssa swims a lot of [butterfly] for us. Katie is very versatile and I put her in a lot of events," said Kunkle.
He added that Benne is in her first year on the diving team, but has already qualified for WPIALs.
On the boys' team, Ray Doerfler, Zach Turi, Drew Nosbisch, Ben Sheldon and Kenny Stevens are the senior leaders.
Nosbisch has represented the Gateway team at states in all three years he's been on it. As of Jan. 23, Nosbisch was listed as WPIAL Class AAA's eighth-fastest 200-yard freestyler (1:48.99) as well as the third fastest 100-fly swimmer (53.5). Similarly, junior Alex Caprara was listed as having WPIAL Class AAA's third-fastest 100-yard breaststroke (1:00.76) and the ninth-fastest 200 IM (2:03.39).
"Kenny, Ray and Drew have been at WPIAL championships the past few years ..." Kunkle said. "All five seniors are very flexible. Drew -- we can put in him every event. But breaststroke is his specialty. Kenny is a breaststroker and sprinter, Ray is fly and sprint, and Zach is fly and sprint. Ben runs the gambit on freestyle -- he can do everything from sprint to distance."
Kunkle added that Turi and Doerfler are the team's vocal leaders, although they also lead by example. Sheldon and Stevens are quieter and lead primarily by example. Their hard work and practice attendance have a ripple effect on the team.
The eight-senior crew has made this a special season for Gateway, but Kunkle feels that their character contributions will remain a part of the Gators' swimming program.
"Each year takes on a year of its own -- I just really enjoy the team this year," Kunkle said. "Our youth is great, so we're looking strong for the future and I really appreciate the numbers we have coming out for the team. It means that we are offering a 'good product.'
"It's just the people who have gone through the program the year before -- they're keeping an ongoing tradition."hsother