Hawks send 5 swimmers to state meet in inaugural swimming season

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The Seaforth Hawks’ swimming program hasn’t been around for long — less than a full season, actually. Yet its men’s and women’s teams have already made plenty of noise with a Mid-Carolina 1A/2A conference championship under their belts, more than 20 regional qualifying events and five swimmers (Evan Hepburn, Charley Howard, Broden Jones, Ben Lajoie and Jackson Vaughn) who are set to take the stage at the NCHSAA 1A/2A Swimming State Championships this weekend.

This week, the News + Record spoke with Antoinette Pujol, the Hawks’ head swimming coach, to discuss the team’s inaugural season in the pool, what we should watch for in this weekend’s state meet and how she’s been able to find success with a group of swimmers of various experience levels. This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.

First off, what should we be looking out for in this weekend’s 1A/2A State Championships? How do you think your team — with three individuals and a relay team — will fare in their first-ever state title meet?

ANTOINETTE PUJOL: I’m really excited for them because most of them are freshmen or sophomores. We come from a school that’s brand new, so we’ve only got freshmen and sophomores, so for all of them, this is their first state meet. We’re headed out there to make more experiences. I’m not really expecting more than one finals cut, but I do think that they’ve all performed with such passion this past season — we even had one of our boys come in first for his 500 swim at regionals. We’re definitely very proud of everything we’ve accomplished. I think just because it’s a brand new experience, they’ll be walking into States learning how things go. And then from there, hopefully next year, we get more people in, more relays in, and we can just have a bigger team with us.

With Seaforth being a team of just underclassmen, did you have some swimmers who were more inexperienced than others?

We’ve got about three club swimmers on our team, but most of the kids who made events weren’t even club swimmers — they came in with just summer swim leagues or just swimming our season and made it on their own, so I’m definitely super proud of them.

One of the boys on the relay, Broden Jones, actually, has only done summer swim league for three summers and hasn’t been in the water in three years; he virtually has no swimming experience at all.

How are you able to take those athletes who have so little swimming experience and get the most out of them, even getting them to a point where they’re qualifying for States?

I’ve been coaching everywhere from novice to advanced swimming, getting them ready for age group swimming, which can be anywhere from learning to swim to making true professional cuts, championship cuts. I think just having had experience coaching novice swimmers makes it easier to design a workout for — let’s say specifically we’re talking about Broden, who’s athletic to begin with; he’s a football player, so I need to take what I know he can do and guide him, with the endurance he’s already built, into swimming.

With your team consisting of almost 50% male athletes — and making up nearly all of your state qualifiers — how were you able to drum up interest among the guys, which can sometimes be difficult for some swim programs?

It just so happened that I think all of our guys are a big friend group, so we’ve got two club swimmers on our team and it kind of sounds like they convinced their friends to also do swimming. We’ve got one very novice swimmer, but he’s a fantastic cheerleader and is great friends with everybody else on the team, as well.

Since we’re such a small school and a small team, everyone is friends with everyone. And I think that really helps with team rapport, with the learn-to-swim portion. It’s never a negative environment if someone can’t do something. It’s always encouraging and positive. I think that really helps when someone doesn’t feel embarrassed with the learning process. It makes it easier for them to grasp those concepts, so I think having started off as such a small team and hopefully building for years to come, I think that that’s really going to bolster the competition.

Since your team is so young, how much hope does that give you for the future of the program? And who might you be able to single out this season who made massive strides from beginning to end?

It excites me, absolutely. Benjamin (Lajoie) and Evan (Hepburn) are going to shine the next couple of years, for sure. I feel very lucky to have been able to coach some of them in the past, as well, for their club team, so I have previous experience with most of the swimmers on our team. I think that also helps since we already have a coaching relationship. For these kids, this was their first time, for a lot of them, their passion for swimming came back and they showed some great stuff in Greensboro for regionals, so we’re really excited.

I also want to call out Jackson Vaughn; I think he did fantastic. He came in, I think, a little hesitant with swimming. It was something that he had put on the back burner. He used to be a club swimmer, but then started with band, I think, a little bit more prominently. He came back for swimming and made it to regionals, dropped four seconds in his 50 freestyle, which is a significant drop for that swim.

Besides the upcoming state meet, what’s been your favorite moment of the season so far?

I would definitely say the bus drive coming back from the conference meet in Asheboro. I think everyone realized they swam really great the whole season, but they swam great as a team that night. Everyone realized that they were also making regional cuts, so that was just a really exciting bus ride back home for everyone.



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