Chad Houck’s first season as head coach for the Elizabethtown Area High School swimming program went about as well as one could’ve hoped.
The Bears were extremely competitive throughout the regular season in Section Two of the Lancaster-Lebanon League, with both of their teams nabbing winning records. The girls (8-3 overall) finished alone in second place behind Ephrata, while the boys (6-5 overall) ended up in a three-way tie for second with Cocalico and Lancaster Catholic behind Conestoga Valley.
On the other hand, Elizabethtown didn’t get as many individuals to districts as it hoped; only four moved forward to Cumberland Valley, with just one, now-senior diver and Youngstown State commit Kierstan Lentz, making it to states. Granted, the Bears were extremely young last season; just two seniors (Stuart Readinger and Kyle Welch for the boys) competed at leagues, meaning that the majority of their entries were experiencing the postseason for the first time.
Youth will continue to be a theme this time around as well. Elizabethtown has just five girls (Lentz, Camille Donahue, Lexi Fink, Rachel Handshew and Hannah Ziegler) and one boy (Colin Steffie) in this year’s senior class. That means the rest of the roster will be comprised of an eye-popping 46 underclassmen.
“Our leadership comes from a lot of our juniors and sophomores, which is an interesting perspective,” Houck said. “They’re really driven to meet their own goals and trying different events. It’s nice to have that core group. We’ll be able to fill out relays well. I think we have quiet leaders on this team, and I’m excited to see how they motivate each other through the season.”
Despite the small senior numbers, most of the ones the Lady Bears have are all seasoned swimmers who will be looking to finish their high school careers strong. Fink led all Elizabethtown swimmers in the regular season with 229 points scored, going onto finish seventh at leagues in the 100-yard breaststroke and 12th in the 200-yard individual medley, both good enough to qualify for districts for the third straight year (she was apart of the 200-yard medley relay in 2017 and 2018, making it individually in the breaststroke in 2018 as well)
Handshew is a freestyle specialist, ultimately finishing third on the girls side in total points with 161. Donahue did a little bit of everything last year, mainly focusing on the individual medley and distance freestyles. She was fifth for the girls with 145 points. Coupled with Lentz, who has medaled at districts and made it to states in each of her three diving seasons, and the Lady Bears have a solid senior group to rely on when times get tough.
“They’re all different,” Houck said. “Lexi is a great example. She’s been a district qualifier every year, and she’s been able to just inch her way up that board. I think she’s motivated to make her senior year count. Rachel came in as a sophomore, found something that she loved and worked really hard to get better. Camille’s a high-school swimmer only, but she keeps her head down and just drives a lot of other people’s energy. They’re all quiet leaders in their own right.”
Outside of the seniors, the Lady Bears will have most of their point scorers from last year coming back. Junior Gabby Walsh stands out, having qualified for districts in the 100-yard backstroke for the second straight season following a sixth-place finish at leagues. She was second for the girls and third overall with 197 points in the regular season and is also a capable butterfly swimmer.
The sophomore duo of Sierra Kapcsos (159 points) and Gabi Dabbs (143.5 points) will be looking to build on their impressive freshman debuts. Kapcsos mainly focused on the breaststroke and the 100-yard freestyle last season, while Dabbs competed in the distance freestyle and butterfly. If Elizabethtown wants to unseat Ephrata, however, a few more girls will need to step up. Junior Emmy Kriner (119 points, distance freestyle), junior Brooke Heisey (81 points, distance freestyle), junior Megan Handshew (59 points, freestyle/backstroke) and sophomore Lilly Rutkowski (85 points, backstroke) are prime candidates to do so.
“I think the mindset is a big thing,” Houck said. “Last year, we went into that (Ephrata) meet ready, and they still kind of brought it to us. Knowing where our strengths and weaknesses are heading into the second half of the season will enable us to get a little bit more prepared. But we have really strong swimmers coming back. We’ll see what we can do, but we’d be really happy to run the table if we can in our section. Our goal is to set that up with our early meets.”
In comparison to the girls, the boys’ core is its junior class, with four of the five eclipsing 100 points last season. Ben Azzalina is the group’s ringleader, having qualified for districts in the 50-yard freestyle and 100-yard backstroke in his first two years (he finished third and fourth at leagues in those respective events last year, the best of any Elizabethtown swimmer). He led the boys with 224 points scored in the regular season, second behind Fink in the program.
His twin brother, Sam, did well in the 100-yard breaststroke and 50-yard freestyle, ultimately finishing with 183 points. Two versatile swimmers, Andrew Donahue (140 points, individual medley/backstroke) and Donovan Arnold (108 points, distance freestyle/butterfly) round out the junior class, while the sophomore group has three guys in Riley Runnels (182 points, freestyle/backstroke), Ethan Hall (102 points, distance freestyle) and Wyatt Rachael (72 points, freestyle/breaststroke) ready to take the next step as well.
“On the guys side, we have a lot of young depth that I’m still trying to figure out,” Houck said. “It’s kind of like last year when I didn’t know everything about the incoming freshmen. But we have a lot of skill level early. There’s less instruction and more base-building, which is kind of nice to start the season. Everyone’s capable of providing things. We’ll see. I think we have really good depth, which we sometimes lacked last year. Our main thing is just gonna be getting those point scorers and winners. We might need to stack a lot of seconds and thirds up.”
Last year’s Elizabethtown roster had a whopping 21 freshmen split nearly even between the boys and girls. This season’s class isn’t as balanced (the boys have nine to the girls’ six), but there are a handful of athletes who may be able to fill in some holes on both sides, including Genevieve McDonald (girls butterfly/individual medley), Adam Mickievicz (boys backstroke/butterfly), Braden Newsome (boys individual medley/backstroke), Rene Oltmans (girls breaststroke/butterfly) and Nathan Yohn (boys freestyle/backstroke).
“They definitely have some sprint speed that we didn’t see last year,” Houck said. “It was more of a mid-distance base with last season’s group. This year, I feel like have some (people) who can fill in some of our relays and freestyles, which is key. We kind of struggled with that last year.”
Houck noted that last season was the first since the start of his time with the team (he joined as an assistant in 2015) that the Bears missed out on sending a relay team to districts, so that goal will be an area of emphasis this season. Other than that, the Bears are looking to stay competitive and potentially challenge for the section title. The pieces are certainly there. They just have to put everything together.
“I would basically like to try and match what we did last year,” Houck said. “I’d like to get a couple more swimmers on the podium at leagues to get to districts. I loved that we took as many freshmen as we did. They’re all gonna know what they’re doing this year, and hopefully, they’ll set some goals in their head about what they want to achieve at the end of the season.”