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HAMMOCK: Work pays off for improving South Gwinnett swimmers

Staff Photo: Jonathan Phillips
 South Gwinnett’s Malik Phillips, left, Keaton Batye, Jamon Stephens and Chas Reid have qualified for state in the 200-and 400-freestyle relays, snapping a six-year drought for the Comets. 

Staff Photo: Jonathan Phillips South Gwinnett’s Malik Phillips, left, Keaton Batye, Jamon Stephens and Chas Reid have qualified for state in the 200-and 400-freestyle relays, snapping a six-year drought for the Comets. 

Thanks to talent-rich Gwinnett County, some local swimming and diving coaches have incredible flexibility with their lineups.

They aren’t concerned as much with having a relay team good enough to qualify for state, instead focusing on which swimmers to put on which state-bound relays to make them the strongest. It’s more of a juggling act with capable competitors in those swimming-rich areas.

Others don’t have that luxury.

SWIMMING AND DIVING

What: Georgia High School Association State Swimming and Diving Championships

When: Friday-Saturday

Where: Georgia Tech Aquatic Center

Finals schedule:

<B>Friday</B>

• 9 a.m. — Class AAAA-A diving, rounds 1-8

• 5:30 p.m. — Class AAAA-A diving, rounds 9-11

<B>Saturday</B>

• 10 a.m. — Class AAAAA diving finals

• 1 p.m. — Class AAAAA swimming finals

• 6 p.m. — Class AAAA-A swimming finals

Take South Gwinnett coach Chris Myers. He essentially constructed a relay team from the ground up the past few years, then watched this season as senior Malik Phillips, junior Keaton Batye and sophomores Chas Reid and Jamon Stephens reached what once seemed impossible — qualifying for state.

The foursome made state cuts in both the 200 and 400 freestyle relays this season, becoming the first South relay team in six years to qualify for the state meet.

“I was pretty excited because they’d never done it,” Myers said of the state cut. “They seemed a little subdued (after making the first state time in the 200 free). They got back to where our team was sitting and there was a lot of relief on their faces. ... They were visibly more excited about (the 400 free relay) because it was so unexpected.

“That hadn’t really been a focus all season, just the last three weeks after we qualified in the 200.”

Myers deserves much of the credit, at least for his role in stirring up interest in what had been a floundering South swimming and diving program. He was hired slightly more than four years ago as a South teacher — after changing careers from a hospital administrator — and was asked if he could coach a sport. There was a need for a swim coach and Myers, a swimmer growing up in Kennesaw, took the job.

He inherited two returning swimmers from the previous team. He talked a total of 16 into joining the team that first season in 2007-08, with the promise that he would teach them the proper strokes (90 percent of the swimmers had never swam competitively, if at all). One of the volunteers was Phillips, then a freshman who has blossomed into a four-year letter winner and multi-event county qualifier.

Batye, who had some competitive swimming experience, joined the mix as a freshman the following season. He has made state in an individual event the past two years.

When Reid and Stephens turned the twosome into a foursome as freshmen last season, the relay was set. But the work was hardly done. Stephens, like Phillips, had to be trained with fundamentals some Gwinnett kids get as young as 4 or 5.

By the end of the 2009-10 season, the Comets’ 200 free relay was two seconds off the state-qualifying time, which made their mission for this season clear. Their times slowed earlier this season before beginning to drop with each meet from the Clody Invitational on.

The swimmers posted a time of 1 minute, 41.59 seconds (just off the 200 free relay state cut of 1:41.50) just before the holiday break, then returned to swim 1:41.02 in a meet with Duluth. The long-running streak for the South boys’ program was over.

They lowered the mark to 1:38.43 at the county meet, which was noteworthy for another reason.

The Comets entered county with a 400 free relay best of 3:53.13, needing to cut seven seconds to make state. They did that and more, swimming 3:42.34 to shave nearly 11 seconds off their top time and impress the coaches, who knew well the amount of work they put in to get there.

The relay’s accomplishments mean a great deal, even if they are overshadowed in a county that produced 13 individual and two team state champions last year. Myers, whose boys team won four meets this season, said those upper-echelon programs played a role in pushing his team forward.

“Without those top teams, I don’t think our kids would have seen how good they can be,” Myers said. “They wouldn’t have seen how much work it takes. In some way, it’s a blessing to see those teams. It’s important for them to see that high of a level.”

Will Hammock can be reached via e-mail at will.hammock@gwinnettdailypost.com. His column appears on Thursdays. For archived columns, visit www.gwinnettdailypost.com/willhammock.