San Dieguito swimming team makes splash in first year

First-year SDA Head Coach David Bennett.
(Ken Grosse)

At the 2019 CIF Swimming & Diving Championships held May 4 at Del Norte High School San Dieguito Academy finished 14th in the girls’ Division II race with 43 points. SDA wound up with 24 points on the boys’ side which left them 22nd in the standings. Not incredibly astonishing figures when compared to the 347 points racked up by the victorious La Costa Canyon girls or the 344 compiled by Cathedral Catholic’s runner-up boys.

That is, not until you factor in one small detail—a year ago at this time, the Mustangs didn’t even have a program. No coach, no uniforms, no athletes. Then it becomes a bit mind-boggling that this squad, without a single senior or assistant coach, even had representation at the section’s biggest prep meet, much less that it had 17 swimmers qualify for the prelims and sent six back to the finals a week later.

Katherine Huang
Freshman Katherine Huang was top four in two events at the CIF D-II Championships. Ken Grosse

The process for taking the project from idea to reality was actually swifter and more straightforward than one would assume. “The parents wanted it and they wanted to help put it together,” said San Dieguito Athletic Director Scott Jordon. “They came to me early last year and asked what it would take to start a team.”

Jordon set them in the right direction, got the word out on campus to see how many students might be interested, put out feelers for a coach and investigated the availability of pool time. By April, the CIF was notified that San Dieguito might be interested in joining an existing league.

In October Jordon hired David Bennett as his coach and San Dieguito had its first new team since girls water polo was added three years ago. Plans were made to start competition in the 2019 spring season.

The response surprised almost all involved, coach and administrators included. After everything shook out, a roster of 36 swimmers, a full 50 percent freshmen, began taking shape. First-year student Katherine Huang was one of those unexpected beneficiaries.

“When I made the decision to go to San Dieguito, they didn’t have a swimming team and I didn’t know they were going to have one,” said the 5-foot-5 Carlsbad resident. “Over the summer when I heard about it I was really surprised and excited.

“When it came to choosing a high school, SDA had all of the things I was looking for—the only con was no swimming team.”

It was then Bennett’s task to create the infrastructure of the program and have it ready to go in a matter of months. A five-time Connecticut state high school swimming champion and four-year collegiate swimmer at University of Rhode Island, he had spent the previous 20-plus years in the world of semi-conductors, directing global sales teams for Skyworks and Anadigics and managing accounts like Apple, Intel and Microsoft. Although his profession precluded him from coaching a team, coaching was in his blood and he was never far from swimming.

“I have always been a swimmer and even though I couldn’t coach a team, I still coached individuals,” said Bennett. “I went to swim meets and stayed up on all the newest training techniques.

Mustang swimmer
Mustang sophomore Kai Stoffels. Ken Grosse

“It’s something I’ve always been passionate about—the sport and the kids.” Bennett was also intrigued by the idea of starting a team from scratch.

“One of the neat things about building a team from the beginning is being able to create a culture that fits in with the school,” said Bennett. “SDA was the only school in the district without a swimming program and I think there’s a certain culture already associated with the school that will attract swimmers.

“We’ll be able to build it the right way, set a realistic culture and expectations from the ground up. The administration has been very supportive and I really like my athletic director—he has the same kind of expectations I do.”

According to Bennett, this first Mustang team in the “new era” included a handful of committed club swimmers (like Huang, who is part of North Coast Aquatics), a bigger “middle” group of kids who maybe used to swim, were water polo players or surfers and a cluster on the other end of the spectrum that were essentially brand new to the sport. While year one has been an unqualified success, the diversity of experience on the roster produced a few interesting hurdles.

“Probably the biggest challenge is that there was no one on campus who knew how high school swimming even operates in San Diego,” said Bennett. “And there were no veteran swimmers to help lead the way with the learning process.

“For the first few meets, a lot of our kids didn’t even know what order the events went and I would have kids coming up to me what seemed like every 30 seconds asking ‘what event is next, where do we warm up?’ and questions like that. I was the sole person with the answers.” Without an assistant coach (which wasn’t part of the first-year budget because there was no inkling that the squad would be as big as it is), all day of meet responsibilities—schedule, warm-ups, paperwork, etc.—fell to the head coach.

Then there’s the matter of the team’s training site. The best option, and definitely a good one, was the Solana Beach Boys & Girls Club, which was SDA’s choice. Practice times available were not quite as optimal. The best in that category was 7:45 to 9:30 p.m. While tough for high school students, it doesn’t hurt that the young Mustangs train side-by-side with defending CIF Division I champion Torrey Pines.

SDA has become a member of the Avocado East League in swimming, pairing up with Santa Fe Christian, another team with relatively small numbers. The two scheduled dual meets together, designing a “double dual” scenario for their opponents.

Like the rest of the local preps, SDA started training early in February. The team does not have any divers but plans to add that aspect next year. The performance at the recent CIF event should boost the program’s visibility and credibility.

Of the six who reached finals, Huang and junior para-athlete Noah Jaffe were the standouts. Huang was third in the 200 freestyle and fourth in the 500 freestyle while Jaffe collected first place medals in both the 50 and 100 freestyles in the para-division. Huang concluded the CIF meet with good feelings.

“CIF was so exciting and without the team, I wouldn’t have gone,” said Huang, a Carlsbad resident who started swimming competitively at age 8. “It was a great experience—the energy, excitement and sense of team spirit helps you swim faster.

“I’m hoping after this year that word gets out about our team and more swimmers will come. I feel like our team could become something really good.” Her sentiments were reflected by her coach who sees SDA eventually becoming a competitive option for district students.

“Look at what we’ve done without anybody knowing that we had a swimming program,” said Bennett. “I’m very confident that good swimmers will be attracted to what SDA has to offer outside of the sport.

“It may take a couple of years but we’re going to get better and better as people get to know us and like what they’re hearing.

“Around here, they like to say, ‘we’re SDA nice,’ which is great, but I don’t want to be too nice. I want to compete with other schools in the district—compete for league and CIF titles in a few years. It’s going to be exciting.”