New coach inherits plenty of talent

If anyone wants to know Leah Gilland’s philosophy of coaching, they need look no further than the big board that hangs in the South Kitsap swimming pool — the one that boasts of all the school’s swim records.

On that boards sits Gilland’s name — one of four girls who together hold the 200-yard medley relay team record.

And you’ll find that the word team is the key one.

“It’s a team,” Gilland said. “You can’t win meets with just first places. That’s what I want not only our team to know, but the school, the communities in the area. We’re a team.”

It’s that kind of thinking had helped Gilland land her first head coaching job just a few weeks ago. Gilland replaces current girls swim coach Dennis Anderson, who stepped away from the boys team at the end of last year.

Tami Lester-Dame was hired last week to coaching diving, a position she also holds on the girls team.

“I kind of got lucky, I think, with timing,” Gilland said. “I was all for it, to get back in the swimming world a little bit. It’s nice to be back in the pool.” 

Gilland, who also serves as a counselor at the school, comes into an interesting situation right off the bat. Not only does she have a core group of swimmers who have been to the state meet the past two years, she also has had a turnout of almost 50 boys — more than double the numbers of swimmers on last year’s team.

“There have been more boys than I expected, more people on the team than I expected,” Gilland said. “That’s been actually a pleasant surprise. The one thing that makes it a little difficult is you have more people that spread your attention around to. But I’m really happy to see this many boys interested in swimming and diving again.”

Of those 47 eager swimmers is a group of three that Gilland will be able to build around - Greg Mercer, Nick Dargel and Cory Smith. All three qualified for the state meet last year and all three should be back for their senior year.

“It looks to me like we have a really strong team,” Gilland said. “II think it’s possible to be the top team (in the Narrows League Bridge Division). That’s kind of what I’m shooting for.”

Mercer is the standout of the group, a hotshot swimmer who holds the school record in the 50-yard freestyle and will anchor the Wolves’ relay teams.

Dargel is a solid swimmer who complements Mercer’s high-octane personality, while Smith may be the most consistent of the three.

Mercer took sixth in the 50 free at last year’s state meet, swimming a school-record time of 21.68 seconds.

He also placed fifth in the 100 free at 47.99 and should be one of the state’s best in both events this year.

Dargel placed 18th in the 100-yard backstroke at state and seeks to improve on that, while Smith, who qualified for the meet but missed swimming in it, should rebound as well.

All three will most likely swim in the 200 medley and 200 and 400 free relays as well.

“We have some great standout swimmers in Greg, Nick, Justin (Sharrett) and Cory,” Gilland said. “And then we have a lot boys who are great sprinters, and I’m just getting to know their speeds and their capabilities. I’m very excited to see how it plays out.”

Gilland said she thinks the sprinters and guys on the relay teams will be key this year, adding that she’s already been impressed with her sprinters just a week into practice.

The key to the year will be finding out which swimmers will come out of the large group to contribute. Some of those include team captains Doug McCarthy and Zack Riddle.

Gilland will also benefit from a much larger numbers of divers out this year. In years past, South has had just a few boys attempt to dive, and Gilland and Lester-Dame are both excited by the turnout this year.

Two who return are Tony Tucker and Dan Haver, and the higher numbers mean more points, Gilland said.

While doing well in the state and dual meets is important to Gilland, she also has other things in mind for the team.

“One of my major goals is that everybody stays eligible,” Gilland said. “We’re doing a study session twice a week for people that are getting Ds or below. That’s one thing that we are stepping up a little bit.”

Last year, due to low numbers and injuries, the Wolves just tried to survive the dual-meet season and get as many kids qualified for state as possible. Gilland said she will take a different approach this year.

“I want to win,” she said. “But I guess I focus more on the work that goes into it. That we have people attending practices and that I can see that they are putting the effort into practice. I’m going to try and focus on the work that gets us there. Hopefully, resulting in on that work will result in wins.”

The Wolves open their season Dec. 2 at Central Kitsap. They have home meets Dec. 9 with Bremerton and Dec. 16 against Gig Harbor, Jan. 13 with Olympic and Jan. 20 against Shelton. The West Central District meet is scheduled for Feb. 4-5 with the state meet being held Feb. 18-19.

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