By MICHAEL COIT
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
Buoyed by strong newcomers and coming off a convincing conference swim meet title, Santa Rosa Junior College’s women seek a seventh state championship.
Making the podium at state would mark a fine finish to the Santa Rosa men’s season following a second-place finish in the Big 8 Conference.
What both squads share is qualifying enough swimmers to compete for team titles. Santa Rosa sends 21 swimmers to the California Community College Athletic Association Championships Meet, opening Thursday at East LA College, in Monterey Park.
“It takes depth. It takes buckling down and getting ready to race,” said Allison Strauss, out of Cardinal Newman, who competed at state two years back. “Our coach likes to say control the situation. You want your hard work to pay off at the end.”
Another state meet veteran preparing Santa Rosa swimmers for the fastest competition of the season is John Bing, the Big 8 male swimmer of the year.
“I just emphasize it is one of the most competitive meets, but it’s one of the most fun meets. The atmosphere there is great,” said Bing, back from Roseburg, Ore., after a season away from competition. “Going into state is just pretty exciting.”
Santa Rosa’s swimmers are a confident bunch. The women have six state titles, the last in 2009, and the men won in 2012.
Leading the teams is Jill McCormick, six-time state community college coach of the year.
Keeping the program among the state’s best demands the development of both established and promising athletes, an academic focus, and keeping swimmers healthy and strong, said McCormick, in her 14th season at Santa Rosa.
“Getting them to buy into our system and believe that they will perform at a high level, that gives them the motivation to train hard,” McCormick said. “Creating a championship culture in your program in everything including the language we use, how we train, how we prepare for competition, how we handle success and failure, encouraging competition daily in practice and training for mental toughness is critical.”
Expectations are high entering each season. Santa Rosa’s latest swim squads have worked to be among the program’s best.
While the women only returned a trio of state qualifiers, a strong freshman class made the Bear Cubs the team to beat in the Big 8.
Among those making a big splash was Miranda Howell. The Cotati swimmer has the state’s best times in two events and a third fastest mark.
“I have a big target on my back. All the girls have their eyes on me,” Howell said.
Not since holding a national top time at age 10 has Howell been the swimmer all competitors are chasing.
Yet, she is ready after setting school and conference meet records in her two best events, the 50 and 100 backstroke, at the Big 8 finals.
“I want to make a bigger stand at state,” she said. “I’ve just been training really hard. We get pushed by our captains and friends who want you to be the best.”
The strong freshman group has trained and raced well with the returning swimmers.
“This year we have a really good connection. It’s exciting to swim with people who really motivate you,” said Straus, a team captain. “We have fast people and a lot of depth for points.”
With a dozen Santa Rosa women making the trip south, the team is aiming for the program’s first women’s state title in five years. Three of the qualifiers are divers, giving Santa Rosa some of the state’s best.
“Our women’s team is much improved this season. We’ve performed better than expected,” McCormick said.
Santa Rosa is sending nine men to the state meet.
Bing leads the group after setting school and conference meet records in his two best events, the 50 free and 100 breaststroke, at the Big 8 finals. Those marks are third and second best, respectively, in the state.
“State is definitely the light at the end of the tunnel for everybody,” Bing said. “It’s time to show everyone what Santa Rosa is all about. We’re just looking to bring home some hardware. I definitely believe we can take top three.”
Among the men aiming to get Santa Rosa back on the podium is freshman Ben Crabb, out of Windsor high. He has a Big 8 title and top ten state times in two events.
“State is definitely going to be a challenge. You have to get your head in the pool. You can’t just feel physically good,” he said.
Noting that all swimmers hit difficult stretches during the season, Crabb said teammates pull one another through to swim even faster.
“They’re the coolest guys,” he said. “We push each other. We talk smack, but it’s all in fun. We encourage each other.”
Bolstering confidence across both teams is demanding training preparing all for the season’s final test.
Weight training and core exercises are emphasized from the first day of practice in August. Water work is increasingly difficult during spring to lower times to meet state qualifying marks.
As with many freshmen, Howell said the out of water strength training makes a big difference.
“It helped me feel more balanced and one with the water,” she said.
The hardest days in the water are on the eve of spring meets. McCormick wants her swimmers ready for the rigors of the state championships.
State is the supreme challenge. With teams qualifying only their fastest athletes, swimmers might compete in twice as many events compared with a regular season meet. And state has preliminaries, meaning more races each session over the three day meet.
“Jill’s a big fan of killing us before meets so that we’re ready for this time of the year,” Bing said. “That’s definitely where the training comes in. We’re prepared to have our best performance.”