East Xtra: Oakland Catholic finds way to replace standout swimmer

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Oakland Catholic swimming coach Jim Skirboll knew there was no way he was simply going to replace the contributions of Leah Smith with another swimmer.

So he did not try.

Instead, Skirboll thinks that Oakland Catholic can recoup some of what Smith brought to the team with a renewed emphasis on diving.

Smith is one of the best swimmers ever to come out of Western Pennsylvania. She is a WPIAL and PIAA champion and record holder. She is one of the top distance freestylers in the country and an Olympic hopeful.

But when it came to dual meets and WPIAL and PIAA championships, swimmers are only allowed to swim in four events, usually two individual events and two relays. So while Smith was one of the most dominant swimmers in WPIAL history, she could only contribute so many points to the Eagles overall efforts in dual meets and WPIAL and PIAA championship meets.

With five divers this season and the addition of a diving coach, Sarah White, Oakland Catholic will be as competitive as ever in dual meets.

White is a Hampton High School graduate and a former diver at Washington & Jefferson College.

“My assistant coach from last season couldn’t come back, so I thought it would be smart to get a diving coach,” Skirboll said. “That is a lot of points that we gave away in dual meets by not having divers in the past.”

The renewed emphasis on diving paid dividends immediately as senior Claire Jacob qualified for the WPIAL diving championships in the first meet of the season. She is the first Oakland Catholic diver to do so in Skirboll’s four years with the program.

“I think we will have three or four girls who qualify for WPIALs,” Skirboll said. “If we score points there, where we never scored before, it can help. We are never going to be able to get back what Leah Smith brought — she was a great swimmer — but if we can get 25 points at the WPIAL meet and in dual meets, that will make a big difference. We are really counting on the divers to contribute.”

While Smith is now swimming at the University of Virginia, Oakland Catholic still has one of the strongest stable of swimmers in Class AAA with sophomores Peyton Kondis and Courtney Coghill and seniors Alexa Namestnick, Kristin Beyerl, Natalie Feola and Meghan Sismour.

Kondis broke the pool record at Chatham University in the 100 breaststroke with a time of 1:05.65 in a season-opening meet. Pool records are hard to come by for Oakland Catholic, which swims its home dual meets at a collegiate pool.

Kondis and Feola were part of a 400 freestyle relay last season that earned All-American status. Feola is a team captain and a freestyle sprinter. Beyerl is a versatile swimmer who can compete in every event, Namestnick is a distance freestyler, Sismour also swims distance freestyle along with the 200 individual medley and Coghill’s top events are the 200 individual medley and 100 breaststroke. Freshman Sarah Mautino has emerged as a fast distance freestyler and backstroker.

“This team is not as loaded as we have been in the past but diving will help us,” Skirboll said. “We have some freshmen who came in this year and a couple other swimmers who are new to this team. The seniors whom we lost, we have to make up those points.”

Oakland Catholic has never lost a dual meet under Skirboll. Their biggest challenge will come in mid-February when they take on Upper St. Clair, one of the top teams in the state.

Smith did not swim for Oakland Catholic during her junior year as she trained for Olympic qualifying. The Eagles were still able to find a way to remain undefeated during the regular season.

“We have some very tough meets on the girls side,” Skirboll said. “Upper St. Clair is swimming great, hopefully my girls will rise to the occasion. On paper it looks like they will be a tough team to beat.”

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