Huge banners commemorating the Upper Arlington High School boys and girls swimming and diving teams' combined 16 state championships and 23 runner-up finishes hang in the school's natatorium, directly behind where swimmers stand as they take to the starting blocks.
While standards haven't changed, boys coach Mike de Bear and girls coach Dan Peterkoski found themselves re-examining everything their teams do in terms of preparation, not only as this season approached, but also as they move to an 11-lane pool in the natatorium of the new high school that will open in two years.
Instead of training as separate teams, the boys and girls are training together by event. It is a marked change in dynamic from recent years, when even though boys and girls swimmers might have been related or otherwise had relationships away from the pool, they did not always cross paths during practices or meets.
"All of us will touch every swimmer in the program at some point during the week," Peterkoski said.
Peterkoski, de Bear and their assistant coaches collaborate on practice plans, sometimes several times a day. Neither had coached the other gender since their previous jobs -- Peterkoski came to UA from Berea in 2003, and de Bear was at Dublin Scioto before joining the Bears in 2010.
"It's been a spark for us personally as well as in the water. It's been the most fun I've had on deck in a few years," de Bear said, adding that summer practices have been conducted in this fashion for several years. "There are more voices to be heard for the kids. There's a lot of experience on this deck.
"It gets you out of your comfort zone and that's a good thing. When you get in a comfort zone, stuff gets stale. We weren't really stale, but why not challenge ourselves to be better than we've been? The very best don't do the same thing every single year."
One staple of the new practices is less yardage, although swimmers agree that practices generally are more intense.
"It's absolutely working," boys swimmer Reed Ray said. "Our program hasn't changed from a mental standpoint; we always have high expectations. Practice is just different with less yardage but more intense, high-quality work. I'm still pretty tired after practices and meets. All of us definitely feel it. It's a hard sport no matter what way you cut it."
Girls swimmer Grace McCarty said this season has featured more work on technique, something she thinks has paid off.
"The guys motivate us to do better and go faster and it gives us a different perspective because Mike and (longtime boys assistant coach) J.J. (Spangler) see different things," McCarty said. "At the beginning, we weren't sure if we liked it a lot. I am not sure the guys and girls teams here have ever been very close, so it was a big dynamic change. I think this has brought us closer together and that's good for everybody."
The girls team will seek its 25th consecutive league championship and the boys will try for their 19th in a row Saturday, Jan. 26, when UA plays host to the OCC-Central Division meet.
The boys racked up 391 points in last year's league meet to finish first, ahead of Dublin Coffman (345), Hilliard Davidson (223), Marysville (89) and Central Crossing (83). The girls had 478 points to finish well ahead of runner-up Coffman (324) as well as Davidson (166), Marysville (126), Central Crossing (71) and Westland (57).
Peterkoski was guarded as to whether he considers the new approach a success, although he did note that all three boys relays are posting faster times now than they did in last season's Division I district meet.
"There's no way to tell at this point," Peterkoski said. "I've always taken the philosophy that I coach athletes. I've always tried to make decisions based on (swimmers) being an athlete rather than a girl or boy. Guys tend to break down a little more during the season than girls might. ...
"We've adapted well, but in the end, the proof will be in how well they swim in the championship meets."
Gymnastics team nearing league title
Despite one of its top competitors being injured, the gymnastics team will seek to complete a 7-0 season in the OCC-Central on Monday, Jan. 28, when it plays host to league rivals Central Crossing, Franklin Heights and Westland as well as Thornville Sheridan, last year's state runner-up.
UA remained unbeaten in the OCC-Central by placing third (127.3) in a seven-team home meet Jan. 15. The Bears finished behind Dublin Jerome (133.55) and Olentangy Berlin (133.05) but ahead of league foes Grove City (124.35) and Coffman (84.2) as well as Dublin Scioto (68.75) and New Concord John Glenn (31.25).
Addy Pittenger led UA by finishing second on balance beam (8.85), sixth on uneven bars (8.2) and third in the all-around (33.25). Taylor Shockley was second on vault (8.35) and Audrey Pool tied for second on floor exercise (8.7).
The Bears are competing without Mia Tzagournis, who is out with an ankle injury.
"Mia is an amazing teammate and team player, though, providing her guidance and support to the rest of the team during her recovery," coach Brittany Maynard said. "The team has stepped up their skills filling Mia's spots in the event lineup. Addy Pittenger and Taylor Shockley have both consistently led the team with their all-around scores, followed by Audrey Pool.
"Hope Perry, Sydney Rose and Natalia Angelis also bring high scores for the team to individual events consistently. Freshmen Neila Sarkis and Paige Lively have rounded out our event lineups proving to be key players for our team score and potential event leaders in future years."
UA averaged 127.4 points in its first seven competitions.
"I am extremely proud of where our team is," Maynard said. "Though the judging is getting more difficult as we move closer to the end of the season tournaments, our team is proving that our success comes from staying positive, supportive and consistent."
Boys team's Sass moves past injury
After not being cleared to play until the day of the boys basketball team's season opener, senior guard Sammy Sass feels fully back in the swing of things even as his role has changed.
Sass, who suffered a broken collarbone during a football game Sept. 21 against Lancaster and missed the rest of that season, spent much of the next nine weeks in intense physical therapy hoping to be ready by the time the basketball team opened Dec. 1 against Huber Heights Wayne in the All-Ohio Nike Hoops Showcase at Pickerington North.
Sass had seven points, six assists and five rebounds that night in a 46-45 loss and was averaging 7.9 points, 4.3 assists and 3.8 rebounds through 12 games. The Bears were 9-3 overall before playing Westerville North on Jan. 22 and are 5-1 in the OCC-Central entering a home game against Davidson on Friday, Jan. 25.
"I never had an exact date that I thought I might be cleared, but I pushed to get back by basketball season," said Sass, a Wright State baseball recruit. "I feel strong, like I'm where I should be."
Sass' season-high in points through 12 games was 12 points, a mark he had achieved three times.
Usually a point guard, Sass has seen more time as a shooting guard the past few weeks as senior forward Max Martz continues to recover from a back injury. Martz has been out since a 66-46 win over Westland on Dec. 21 and his return date is uncertain.
"It's a lot different for me being off the ball, but I'm adapting to it," said Sass, who had seven points and nine rebounds in a 42-37 win at Central Crossing on Jan. 18. "We're moving the ball a lot more. We've usually had that one really good player the past couple of years with Dane Goodwin and now with Max, but without Max we know everybody has to step up that much more."
Jake Warinner had a game-high 20 points against Central Crossing.
Martz and Macy Spielman of the girls basketball team were announced last week as nominees for the McDonald's All-American games, scheduled for March 27 in Atlanta. Rosters will be announced Thursday, Jan. 24.