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St. Mary's County Teams Dive Into SMAC

New Programs Add Competition to Conference

By Charlie Moss
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, December 19, 2004; Page SM10

Leonardtown's Allison Davis, Page Christensen and Eric Pinno have gotten to face some of the top swimmers from around the Southern Maryland Athletic Conference since coming to the school. But the three have not represented the Raiders in doing so -- until this year. Despite competing in nearly every other SMAC sport, St. Mary's County schools only added varsity swim teams this season.

For the first time, swimmers from Leonardtown, Great Mills and Chopticon will compete for their respective schools. Combined with the opening of Huntingtown, the SMAC swim schedule will feature four new programs, bringing the total number of teams to 12.

La Plata's Sam Fleming, left, beat Patuxent's Mike Ursic in a 500-meter freestyle race in January. But Patuxent went on to win the SMAC boys' title. (Jonathan Ernst For The Washington Post)

"The kids have been wanting this for years," said Raiders Coach Meagan Shelton. "They have been itching to get swimming in St. Mary's County, and we will have the depth and ability to compete."

Shelton believes the school board was hesitant to adopt swimming in the past out of fear that there would not be strong participation from students. There was also the small matter of a lack of facilities.

About a year ago, the facilities problem was corrected with a new pool at Great Mills. The pool will serve as a practice location and meet venue for all of the St. Mary's County schools, and to this point there has been no shortage of interest from swimmers. The Raiders, for example, have been able to attract swimmers from two of the top club teams in the county and will open with a roster of 32.

One distinct advantage Leonardtown, Chopticon and Great Mills will have is that the other schools will be far less familiar with the new talent and may have to adjust how they approach meets against these teams.

"It will be a lot more competitive conference this year," said Patuxent Coach Graham Coombs, noting the abundance of year-round swimmers in St. Mary's County. "It's going to force a lot of teams to step it up."

Coombs's boys' team stepped it up a season ago. The Panthers took home their first SMAC title and are in good position for a repeat. Juniors Alex Smith and Mike Ursic, along with senior Travis Haigler, will return and be joined by sophomore butterfly and backstroke specialist John Kitner, a transfer from Great Mills.

La Plata and Leonardtown will provide strong competition on the boys' side. Pinno will lead the Raiders; the Warriors will look to senior standout Sam Fleming to lead them toward the top of the SMAC.

The battle for the girls' title should shape up much as it did last year, when La Plata won the season-ending SMAC championship, narrowly defeating Northern. The Patriots had put together an undefeated regular season to that point, taking care of the Warriors in the process. Both teams will feature strong returning swimmers at the top of their lineups, and this season figures to come down once again to the final meet.

Leonardtown will also be a strong competitor on the girls' side, but Shelton insists that winning titles will not be all her team is focused on this first year.

"I want each swimmer to achieve their personal best time, and we need to build team spirit up," she said. "That will translate to winter and summer swim leagues. When they see their teammates up there swimming for other clubs, then hopefully they will pull for each other."

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