West Xtra: Tough competition prepares Moon

SWIMMING

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The Moon Area Tigers swim teams compete in Class AAA Section 2 and make no mistake, it's a tough one, with programs such as North Allegheny and Butler Area also involved.

But both the Moon Area boys' and girls' teams have racked up their own achievements this season. These span everything from landmark dual meets to WPIAL qualifying times to this past weekend's Midwestern Athletic Conference championships. In a nutshell, the Tigers swim teams have their own stories to tell.

"Having some freshman girls come on and be able to qualify for WPIALs -- that's been great," first-year coach Zac Gebhardt said.

Freshmen Rachel Balogh and Gabriela Marsh have recorded WPIAL Class AA qualifying times in the 100-yard butterfly and the 100-backstroke, respectively. Balogh swam a 1:06 to qualify and Marsh recorded a 1:07.9.

There are 27 girls on Moon's swim team (3-7-1, 1-3-1). The girls compete in WPIAL Class AAA during the regular season but will be AA for the WPIAL championships.

The boys' team (2-9, 0-5), however, is aligned in Class AAA for the regular and postseason. This can make it more difficult for the athletes in different events to record qualifying times.

Nonetheless, the 17-member Moon Area boys' swimming team fought to qualify all three relays, and they were successful.

"It took the entire season; we didn't get it all in one meet," Gebhardt said.

The 200-yard medley relay is swum by Andrew Morgan, Ilya Noskov, Ryan Pannebaker and Mason Prickett. Prickett and Noskov also swim the 200-yard freestyle relay with the Merrow brothers, Josh and Ryan. On Moon's 400-yard freestyle relay are Noskov, Prickett, Morgan and Ryan Merrow.

Gebhardt explained that the 200-yard freestyle relay was the toughest of the three for which to qualify.

"We don't have a lot of sprinters on our team," he explained.

Moon Area's training often focuses on longer distances in order to develop swimmers beyond the "splash-and-dash" strength of a 50-yard freestyle.

Many swim teams can score points on the natural talents of a sprint freestyle core. But the teams that strengthen swimmers to the other strokes (breaststroke, backstroke and butterfly) and the longer distances can win by scoring points in the technical events that are beyond the scope of sprint-heavy opponents.

Moon swimmers train for a college advantage as well as a high school one. Gebhardt said that high school lineups include many 100-yard races. But college events include 200-yard stroke events and a 400-yard individual medley. Gebhardt noted that college coaches could be encouraged to recruit from Moon Area if they knew the athletes were already versed in longer distances.

At Saturday's 16 MAC meet, the Moon girls' swim team placed second out of 16 teams. The Moon boys were fourth of 15. Senior diver Heather Lonkert dominated the dives with a score of 403.40. Alexis Mitcheltree won the 100-yard freestyle and 100-backstroke. The girls' 400-yard freestyle relay also placed first.

The Tigers have also notched some major achievements as teams. On Jan. 21, the Tigers took on Shady Side Academy. The Indians' boys were Class AA state champions in 2011, and Shady Side assistant coach Keegan Borland is actually Gebhart's best friend.

"We had swum together since seventh grade and we hang out every weekend," Gebhardt said. "We wanted to swim against each other's team."

Gebhardt felt that Shady Side would give Moon some tough competition.

Nonetheless, the young Tigers' teams contended and won.

"My team stepped it up and won," said Gebhardt.

On Feb. 7 in a section meet versus strong teams from Pine-Richland, the Tigers girls tied the Rams, 93-93.

"In the end our boys lost," Gebhardt said. "But the score was 103-81."

In the end, the MAC meet achievements capped those from Moon's regular season.

"This MAC meet is much more team oriented," he said. "It's a good steppingstone to get us focused for WPIALs."

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