The Next Step

Ardrey Kell girls swimmers seek transition from conference to state champions

by Aaron Garcia

Ardrey Kell swim coach William Keith (center) with senior captains (from left) Nicole Gray, Shannon Foreman, Allie Nearby, Paige Alvarez, Kaitlyn Kramer and Lauren Bohannon (Aaron Garcia/SCW photo)

From the black-and-gold lane dividers to the patchwork of felt championship banners lining the walls of the pool’s structure, the Ardrey Kell girls swim team doesn’t need to look far for motivation. After all, the school colors adorning the pool aren’t the Knights school colors but rather those of Providence High, their archrival. But because only two schools within the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools system have pools (West Charlotte High School is the other), Ardrey Kell practices at Providence’s pool.

As a young program, practicing in the Panthers’ pool has been a constant reminder of the level the Knights aspire to reach. After all, Providence has been one of the top swim programs in the state for the better part of two decades.

But this year, the key to the Knights’ success may be ignoring their practice surroundings and what they represent.

Last season, the Ardrey Kell girls team had a chance to break through as a state title contender. And what better way to begin their crusade than with a Southwestern 4A conference title? After all, a league title could only come by besting Providence, which had strung together 19 consecutive conference championships and won 10 state titles in that stretch.

The league championship meet came down to the final relay, and when the waves settled, the Knights had accomplished the unthinkable: They ended the Panthers’ seemingly unstoppable record of 19 consecutive titles.

But unfortunately for the Knights, the dream season ended there. Two weeks later, at the Class 4A Western Regional, the Panthers resumed their dominance by winning their 14th consecutive regional title. The hangover continued the following week at the state meet when the Knights finished 14th – well short of their goal, especially after finally toppling Providence for the first time in school history.

And they found little consolation in the fact that the Panthers finished seventh overall.

So now, as the Knights prepare this week for the Class 4A Regional, they’re not putting too much stock into their second consecutive league crown, which they won Jan. 20 over – you guessed it – Providence.

This year, Ardrey Kell coach William Keith said, the team is pacing its expectations.

“Last year, to end Providence’s streak and to climb that mountain for the first time was such a huge emotional investment and such a huge accomplishment for our team that when we climbed it at the conference meet (this year), it took everything we had,” said Keith. “Literally, everything we had emotionally went into that conference meet.”

Keith said not only did his swimmers learn a valuable lesson in the process of last year’s disappointing finish, but so did he. As a former Providence Panther swimmer from 1998 to 2001, Keith knows all too well what the next few weeks are going to entail for his team, and he’s betting that taking the success in increments this season will translate to more success.

“I’ve certainly had to change up as a coach and adapt,” he said. “I feel like having gone through an experience like last year, I think that allowed me to think bigger picture for our program. I think that approach has helped us a lot this year.”

And the girls have adopted the outlook, said senior Shannon Foreman, who has committed to joining the Rice University (Texas) program next year.

“I think last year’s (disappointment) was the best thing for us,” she said. “This year, I know just from talking to a lot of the girls on the team, they’re like, ‘We’re going to win regionals and we’re going to states and we’re not going to watch other teams beat us. We’re going to be the people that are winning events and relays and are contending for titles.’

“I think that was the extra motivation. We don’t want to have the same performance as last year; we want to go in and do even better.”

Added sophomore Sam Benson: “Last year, we conquered the unthinkable. This year, we want to top that.”

Foreman, along with fellow captains Paige Alvarez, Lauren Bohannon, Nicole Grey, Allie Nearby, Kaitlyn Kramer and Megan Harper, have driven the point home, especially since claiming their second consecutive conference title, said freshman Megan Wallace.

“(They’ve told us newcomers that regionals) are really fun, but you need to bring it, you need to be on your ‘A’ game, more than anything else,” said Wallace, who helped the Knights’ cause by winning a pair of events at the league championship meet. “You have to be mentally ready.”

Now, Keith is hoping his team is more prepared to beat not only the Panthers, but anyone else in the pool, which could mean the Knights are on the verge of something great, starting Saturday, Feb. 4 at the regional meet at Huntersville Family Fitness & Aquatic Center.

“We feel like we’ve gotten back to the point last year where we felt like we left things,” said Keith. “Our goal all along (this season) was to take it to the next level and advance further and improve on what we’ve done. We feel like we’ve validated, to some degree, the status of our program and the success we had last year, but we’re very much looking forward to taking it to the next level as we get to regionals.”

The key, said Keith, is even-keeled consistency.

“I think that’s going to help us moving forward,” he said. “I think we’re much better prepared to have success at the regional level and the state level than we were a year ago.”

Now, as the team practices in the black-and-gold shadow of the pool’s regular inhabitants, the Panther paraphernalia around the Knights serves more as an example of the program they aim to follow, rather than the team they strive to beat.

“To look around and see the success this program has had, to look around and see the banners, it certainly is motivation and it keeps me motivated to improve our program,” Keith said. “Certainly our goal as a program is to surpass (Providence), and (practicing here is) a good reminder every day of what we’ve accomplished and what we hope to reach in the future.”

Added Benson: “It’s motivation.”

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