Taking pride in their new assignments comes naturally for first-year Watkins Memorial High School swimming and diving coach Heather Faulkner and her staff.

Taking pride in their new assignments comes naturally for first-year Watkins Memorial High School swimming and diving coach Heather Faulkner and her staff.

All three are alums, after all.

Faulkner, who is replacing Jake Deeds, is a 2001 graduate. And her assistants, classmate Keith Schultz and 2002 graduate Stephen Kididis, still hold several school records. All three were moving through the program when the sport obtained varsity status in 1998-99.

"We've all come home, I guess," said Faulkner, who was on Deeds' staff the past two seasons. "I think it's good for the program, and I know we're all excited about this opportunity."

Like most schools in Licking County, the Warriors have a light competition schedule over the holidays and won't compete again until a meet also involving Granville on Jan. 6 at Coshocton. Heath's next meet is the West Muskingum Invitational on Jan. 9, Newark will compete with Pickerington North during a meet on Jan. 2 at Lancaster while Newark Catholic will play host to Warsaw Riverview on Jan. 2 at the Licking County Family YMCA.

"That first month, really, is just about getting the kids settled in who don't swim year-round," said Faulkner, who teaches German at the high school. "Around Christmas, you want to start building endurance and start mixing relays. By then, you can really identify specific things each individual needs to work on. The holidays are a nice time because you can work one-on-one a little more."

The Warriors return several girls who have Division I district meet experience. They include sophomores Rebecca Holmes and Hannah Rush, who competed with the 400-yard freestyle relay. Holmes, who also is hoping to reach that level this year in the 200 individual medley, is a budding star. Others to look for include seniors Rebecca Blumer, Lindsey Bitner and Bianca Krebs and junior Jessica Lyons.

The top boys include senior Tyler Hatton, who advanced to the district meet with the 400 free relay, and Tyler Dillon, who was on the district-qualifying 200 medley relay and 200 free relay. Other boys to look for include senior Josh Allman.

"It's a good thing I know the kids pretty well because I've got four Tylers and five Rebeccas on the team," said Faulkner, whose girls placed fifth (87 points) at last year's OCC-Capital Division meet won by eventual Division II state runner-up New Albany (489.5) while her boys team also was fifth (45) behind the champion Eagles (459). "Our numbers are up (to 42 participants overall from 34 last year), and we've got a lot of good things going for us."

At Heath, Dave Gallant takes over for Mark Pennington, who guided the boys team to its best season a year ago. The Bulldogs finished fourth (134) at the MSL meet won by Columbus Academy (306) as Newark Catholic (54) was eighth among the 11 teams, and Heath advanced graduate Tyler Paulsen to the Division II state meet in four events. Gallant, who is teaching in Westerville, spent the past 10 years at Portsmouth Notre Dame.

"It's definitely an honor to be here," said Gallant, whose girls and boys teams at Notre Dame combined for more than 200 dual-meet victories and eight league championships. "It's a good time to come in and ride the wave of last year's success. Hopefully, it'll be another record-breaking season."

The Bulldogs clearly will miss Paulsen, who placed seventh at state in the 50 free (21.58) and was named ThisWeek's Swimmer of the Year. He won a district title in the 100 free (47.66) and departed with nine school records. He competes at Mount Union with fellow graduate Julian Oprandi, and graduate Josh Wedor is swimming at Notre Dame in northeastern Ohio.

Senior Marc Mason returns from the state-qualifying 200 medley relay (20th, 1:44.74) and 200 free relay (21st, 1:32.65), and sophomore Jessie Church was an alternate on those relays. Others to look for include juniors Scott Nelson, a first-year swimmer who already is the team's top breaststroker, and Chris Monroe.

The girls team, which finished 12th (31) at the MSL meet won by Academy (305) as Newark Catholic (44) placed ninth and Licking Valley (20) was 14th among the 15 teams, returns juniors Emily McCall, Amelia Sigman and Annaleigh McDonald from the district-qualifying 200 free relay. Others to look for include Alissa Ludasher, the only senior.

Newark Catholic's girls team is led by senior Jenna Dodson, who swam on the Division II district-qualifying 200 medley, 200 free and 400 free relays. Others to look for include seniors Julie Pintz, Joanna Phelps, Kim Breitmayer and Paige Rhodes. The top boys include junior Cody Byrd, who advanced to the district meet in the 500 free. Others to look for include classmate Jason Snider and promising sophomore Joel Roth.

"Last year, we had a pretty good graduating class. Our numbers are down a little now (with 14 individuals overall). It goes in cycles and part of that is economics," said coach Donel Gastineau, who is the aquatics director at the Licking County Family YMCA and also works with individuals from Licking Valley, Lakewood and Thornville Sheridan. "That being said, I think there's still some real promise there."

Lakewood is represented by freshman Jarod Rose, who is a freestyler, and Licking Valley returns senior Kaytee Postle, a former distance specialist who is now competing in the shorter events.

"Kaytee's really taken to the sprints," said Gastineau, who usually takes his individuals to Newark Catholic's team meets. "She's always had a ton of potential, but she went through a growth spurt to the point where she outgrew her strength. We're hoping she'll finally be a state qualifier now."

The Newark girls team is led by senior Bonnie Brooks and juniors Michelle Wolfe, Maddie Sassen and Jillian Shipley, all of whom return from the Division I district-qualifying 200 medley and 200 free relays. Junior Casey Cartnal also returns from the district-qualifying 400 free relay, which also had Sassen, Wolfe and Brooks. Others to look for include senior Olivia Gaulke and junior Abby Kirkpatrick. The top boys include juniors Jarel Johnson, Jamaal Johnson and Chris Powless and sophomore Charlie Peppers, who holds the school record in the 100 backstroke (1:01.48).

"Our girls have done really well. We've had five (dual) meets and only lost one so far," said coach Amber Knerr, whose girls team placed seventh (48) at last year's OCC-Ohio meet won by Pickerington North (312) while the boys team was sixth (72) behind champion Gahanna (344). "A lot of my kids swim on club teams or get private instruction, and we're hoping that extra work pays off."