Swimmers from Pickerington High School Central and North were greeted by an enthusiastic "good morning, everybody" from their shared coach, Justin Dortch, as they arrived at the Lancaster YMCA for practice Jan. 12.
It took many of them by surprise, and not just because the practice began at 3 p.m.
Central and North swimmers were coming off meets the previous day, with the teams split between the Northeast Classic at Branin Natatorium in Canton and the Delaware Hayes Pentathlon Plus at Ohio Wesleyan. They also are in the midst of their most strenuous training of the year.
"They're sore, they're tired and all frustrated, which is what's supposed to happen at this point in the season. They forget they're supposed to feel that way," Dortch said. "It's important to be sore and not in the best shape of their lives right now."
In the Northeast Classic, the North boys scored 14 points to tie Euclid for 31st behind champion Strongsville (216) as 39 teams scored.
Andrew Martin was seventh in the 100-yard butterfly (53.26 seconds), Justin Mathews was 18th in the 100 breaststroke (1:03.56) and 23rd in the 200 individual medley (2:10.42) and Clay White was fourth in diving (462.8 points). The 200 medley relay was 16th (1:44.32) with Nate Campbell, Martin, Mathews and Durkin Ross.
None of North's girls, or anyone from Central, made the finals, and they did not score as teams.
The Northeast Classic took place in the same pool that will play host to the Division I state meet Feb. 20-22.
As evidence of his swimmers' frustrations, Dortch cited Mathews, who was disappointed with his 100 breast time. But Dortch reminded Mathews that he recorded a time of 1:04.05 in the same event in a sectional meet last year, and this year's sectional won't take place until Feb. 8.
"He thinks of himself as a minute breaststroker because he's gone that time, but he forgets he didn't go that fast every meet. He went that at the end of the season," Dortch said.
"So he has plenty of reasons to be optimistic. It doesn't always seem like that right now. It's kind of the dog days of the season."
Other swimmers from both teams competed in the Pentathlon Plus. That event was not run like a regular meet, instead consisting of six events -- the 100 IM, 50 freestyle, 50 fly, 50 backstroke, 50 breast and 50 IM.
The field was divided by age and gender. Winners were determined by total times.
North freshman Ryan Francis (3:41.26) and Panthers sophomores Nick Rushlow (3:23.69) and Jessie Sherry (4:04.17) were second in their brackets.
"It pushed my limits," Francis said. "Six (events) is a lot. I'm used to four, of course, and it was different. It was hard. We're going through all this training and we're not to taper yet, so it's train, train, train and go your hardest at the meets."
In addition to the teams' strenuous training, Dortch hopes specialized coaching from his assistants helps postseason performances. Ashley Andrews works with distance swimmers, Crystal Dortch concentrates on sprinters and Emily Whittington is strokes coach.
"It's helping tremendously, getting to work on strokes with a coach who's good at critiquing strokes," Central sophomore Rachael Sentivany said. "That helps a lot. There's a lot more one-on-one time. I can feel myself improving. I'm slowly doing better, but of course I'm not where I want to be yet."
Dortch toying with Tigers lineup
Justin Dortch has swapped Central sophomore George Melikian and senior Matthias Speidel between the backstroke and breaststroke, and likes what he sees from both in each event.
Melikian, a backstroker last year, already has gone 1:06 in the 100 breast and Speidel, who was a breaststroker in 2012-13, has reached 1:01 in the 100 back. According to Dortch, both times should be enough to get them to the district meet if they hold up.
But Dortch also said that versatility wouldn't be possible without the contributions of freshman Trace Eberhardt, who the coach said has participated in every event at some point this season.
"Having somebody who's as versatile as Trace has allowed everybody else to try new events," Dortch said. "We can experiment with George and Matthias being breaststrokers or backstrokers. By not having to worry about what other events are going to be filled by two of our better swimmers, I'm allowed to play around with that small lineup a little bit and give those boys a chance.
"All of a sudden, they're both (potential) district qualifiers. That wouldn't happen with Trace not being there. They'd have been stuck swimming the same events over and over."