When the nine swim teams in District 7-6A convene at Don Rodenbaugh Natatorium on Thursday, it’ll not only be the first high-profile meet of the season for several of the student-athletes in action. It’ll also be the first time some of those swimmers have competed against one another in person.
This week marks the start of the high school swimming postseason — the first of three rounds of competition as teams battle for a spot at next month’s UIL state meet in San Antonio. Getting there figures to be a bit more challenging than in years past.
“The whole thing has been different. There’s no way around it. No year has ever been like this,” said Brent Mitchell, Allen head coach.
As part of its revisions to the 2020-21 athletics calendar due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the UIL has reduced the number of qualifying spots for its regional and state swim meets. Only the top four finishers in each event will advance from district to regionals, compared to the top six in previous years, and the number of automatic qualifying bids from regionals to state has been trimmed from two to one. In addition to the first-place finisher in each regional race, the next eight fastest times around the state will qualify as well.
It’s an added layer of importance for this week’s round of district meets, many of which are being split into separate days for the boys and girls competitions due to capacity and social distancing parameters within the swim facilities. An uptick in urgency should be anticipated as well, with qualifying spots at a premium in districts that rank among the faster leagues in the state like in 5-6A with Lewisville ISD and Southlake Carroll or 7-6A with Allen, Plano ISD, McKinney ISD and Prosper.
“I think there will be more intensity at this meet than usual. I think it’s going to have more of a regional feel,” Mitchell said. “Typically, you get six out and now it’s only four. So there are going to be a lot of kids who might advance in a normal year that’ll be sitting on the outside looking in. You’ll have a lot of kids that could go to state that have made it in the past but who might not make it out.”
In some cases, simply getting to the postseason is a victory as teams navigate competition during a pandemic. Those circumstances have dealt each sport on the UIL calendar its own set of challenges, including high school swim teams that have battled a lack of competition, roster size reductions and limitations on training time. A program like Plano East has encountered all three.
“Our day-to-day is 100% different,” said Lena Harrington, East head coach. “Due to facility restrictions, because we’re at a city facility (Rowlinson Natatorium), our practice time has the kids getting 150 minutes per week whereas they used to get 450 minutes. We’re operating at about 33% of time in the water compared to a year ago.
“Because of those restrictions, we had to cut our roster back. We’re sitting right at 51 after having 73 kids last year, so it’s about two-thirds when it comes to roster size. Those are really big.”
In some cases, teams have had to eschew in-person competition with other schools in the district and resort to virtual meets. In those cases, teams race on their own inside their home facilities and the coaches combine the times afterwards.
“You basically run a meet by yourself and then you combine the times,” Mitchell said. “It works in a sense, but you lose out on the competition. The only people you see are your teammates. You want these kids to race and see what these other teams have and why you’re training the way you’re training. A lot of times, you don’t get that.”
It adds a layer of uncertainty for what to expect as the postseason gets underway. Swimmers train and pace themselves differently, and coaches have to navigate what Harrington called “a guessing game” on how to best utilize their athletes given the reduced number of postseason qualifying spots.
“What’s tough about our district this year is that it’s so fast. With fewer entries going to regionals, we really had to think hard about what events we wanted to swim so we can make sure our kids are able to make it into those top fours and we could continue our season,” she said. “The 200 freestyle in our district is hands-down one of the fastest in the state and that makes it hard. It’s kind of a guessing game to see who’s going to swim what.”
For all those challenges, Harrington noted that her swimmers have approached the year with a heightened attention to detail and time management.
“They seemed like really big obstacles at the start of the year, but it’s allowed us to focus on quality,” she said. “We don’t get in the water late anymore. The swimmers are taking their minutes more seriously now. Attendance has been great as far as getting everything out of every minute that we can. For all the negatives there have been some positives for the team as far as valuing that time to prepare.”
Swimmers put those preparations into practice this week. District 7-6A is hosting its conference meets Thursday (girls) and Friday (boys) at Don Rodenbaugh Natatorium in Allen, while 5-6A races Friday (girls) and Saturday (boys) at the Carroll ISD Aquatics Center in Southlake.
The top four qualifiers advance to the Region II-6A meet, set for Feb. 5-6 at Westside Aquatic Center in Lewisville. The Class 6A state meet takes place on two separate days as well, with the girls competing Feb. 19 and the boys on Feb. 26 — both at Josh Davis Natatorium in San Antonio. Regional and state competitions will be one-day meets with prelims scheduled for the morning and finals in the afternoon.
“Everybody has to deal with it and everybody has had struggles,” Mitchell said. “When you get behind the block, all you can do is the best job you can. That’s all we can ask at this point.”