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Ben Azzalina Leads EAHS Swimming at District 3 Championships

The 2018-19 season has been a largely successful one for the Elizabethtown Area High School swimming team. However, that was not reflected in the number of Bears competing at the District 3 Championships. They had just three swimmers and one diver this year, compared to five swimmers, a relay team and two divers last season.

Still, the three swimmers who did compete in the two-day district meet at Cumberland Valley on Friday, March 1, and Saturday, March 2, did their best to show out, coming away with decent results.

Sophomore Ben Azzalina had the best overall finishes. He took 11th in the Class 3A boys 50-yard freestyle with a time of 22.08 on Friday, then followed that up by placing ninth in the 100-yard backstroke in a season-best time of 54.89, just one spot of from getting a medal. Both were improvements from his district performance last year, where he was 20th in the backstroke and 28th in the 50-yard freestyle.

“Getting 20th last year was a really big accomplishment for me, so I think getting top-10 this year was in the back of my mind,” Azzalina said. “I would’ve loved to have gotten top-eight, but I’m definitely satisfied with ninth, and there’s a lot I can improve upon for this upcoming year.”

“It’s exciting,” head coach Chad Houck said. “I always like to tell the kids who make leagues and districts that the first one is challenging. It’s a new world; there’s a lot of people around here are really comfortable, and you might not be. So it’s really good for this to be Ben’s second year to get a little more used to things.”

Azzalina’s time in the 50-yard freestyle was a tad slower than his seed time of 21.95. He admitted that he didn’t get a good start off the blocks, which caused him to finish third in his heat. However, he was terrific in the backstroke, trimming nearly a second off his seed time and finished particularly strong.

“I really just wanted to take it out fast and see what I had left for the last 50,” he said. “I started 26.6 and came back 28.2, which is really good for me. I had a slower finish at leagues, so I’m glad that my taper worked, and I just had to trust my stamina at the end. It paid off.”

“He was disappointed with a really good 50-freestyle yesterday,” Houck said. “It just wasn’t what he wanted. But for the backstroke, he relaxed a little bit and came into the race with a different mindset. The whole race was great for him. He doesn’t always have the strongest walls, but he’s really fast on top of the water and finishes great. It was really exciting for him to watch that last heat to see if he’d get on the podium. He just missed it, but looking at the sheet, there were a lot of seniors who medaled. He’s the fastest guy his age in this district, so that’s really cool for him.”

For Elizabethtown’s other two swimmers, one saw an improvement from 2018, while the other took a slight step back. Junior Lexi Fink took 18th in the girls 100-yard breaststroke (1:09.99, third in her heat), up from 27th last year. She was also 28th in the 200-yard medley relay (2:21.04, fifth in her heat), the first time she’s qualified for districts in that event. Sophomore Gabby Walsh, meanwhile, finished 19th in the girls 100-yard backstroke (1:01.73, fourth in her heat), down from 10th in 2018.

“For Gabby, she dropped a little bit from last year, but this was her fastest time this season,” Houck said. “It’s her second time at districts, so I think that’s good for her. For Lexi, she got in with two events this year. Her breaststroke wasn’t as fast as it was at leagues, but she felt good about it and had a good meet. It’s great that all of them will have the opportunity to come back next year with more experience. Seniors ahead of them will be graduating, so it’ll be their time to shine.”

For now, the Bears will have just one representative at the PIAA Swimming and Diving Championships on Friday, March 15, and Saturday, March 16 at Bucknell University: junior Kierstan Lentz, who made it into the Class 3A girls diving field as an alternate following her sixth-place finish at districts on Saturday, Feb. 22. Azzalina could potentially move into an alternate position for the boys 100-yard backstroke.

But despite the limited success in the postseason, Elizabethtown’s swim teams have plenty to be proud of this season. The girls and boys were 8-3 and 6-5 during the regular season, with both taking second in Section Two of the Lancaster-Lebanon League. They’ll lose just nine swimmers to graduation, potentially leaving them with 48 for the 2019-20 campaign, 21 of whom are freshmen this season. With any luck, the Bears will see their fortunes improve even further with another year of experience under their belt.

“I’ve been working on my starts and turns a lot,” Azzalina said. “I actually went to a clinic at the Naval Academy. It’s improved a lot from last year, but I’ll definitely keep working on it in the offseason. If I can get that down, I’ll hopefully be a district champion one day.”

“I think team-wise, it was super impressive,” Houck said. “We talked at the beginning about finishing .500 for both. The girls only lost one meet in our section, and the guys held their own and beat Cocalico and Warwick, which was really cool for us. We learned a lot about our big group of freshmen that came in and what they’re good at. We found out halfway through that Wyatt Rachael could do the breaststroke really fast. Knowing all those things is really nice. We got the swimmers we thought we could to districts. The main goal next year is to try and build up some relays to get one back here. It gets more people here to experience these types of championship meets. Trying to build programs like these schools, you have to start somewhere.”

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