In their first year under new coaches Cassie Mattison and Courtney Donhaiser, the Chargers’ swim team won their first district championship this past year.
For the first time in Strawberry Crest’s history, their girls swim team brought home a district title last season, with the boys team finishing second at the district meet.
With their previous coach changing schools, English teacher Cassie Mattison was approached about taking over as the programs next head coach. Despite never having coached a swim team, the administration recognized her familiarity with the sport due to her children being dedicated swimmers at the club level. Her agreement came on one condition, that being the inclusion of her fellow teacher Courtney Donhaiser joining the coaching staff alongside her.
“I was approached, they said that they know I’m around the pool all the time already and that they know I’ve been around the sport for a long time and asked if I would be interested in coaching,” Mattison said. “I said that I would only coach if Courtney Donhaiser will coach with me, because I know that she had experience teaching swimming, she swam in high school and she swam intramural for the University of Florida, so I knew that she would have that technical experience.”
Teaching within Strawberry Crest’s English department for six years together, Mattison and Donhaiser helped grow the Chargers’ team into a more competitive program in just one season. With a mix of swimmers from all different experience levels, from those in just their first year swimming competitively to those that swim year-round at both the high school and club level, their practices are broken down accordingly. The novice swimmers work with Mattison while the more experienced swimmers are able to work separately, often coming over to help with their newer teammates.
“It was really cool because Courtney and I went in with no expectations and maybe that was a part of the magic ingredient,” Mattison said. “We didn’t feel any pressure, we just said that we haven’t done this before, we got a lot of advice from other coaches, from other club coaches and the kids helped us so much, especially those seasoned swimmers. They gave us a lot of advice on what they’ve found works and what doesn’t work and again, they got into the pool and helped each other out. It was pretty amazing. And we had so many kids where it was their first year ever swimming on a swim team, I would say that for 25 to 30 percent of them, it was their first time on a swim team.”
Despite so many new swimmers, their hard work and consistency allowed them to play an integral part in the team’s district results. Mattison noted how team competitions are based on an aggregate point system, and that even if a swimmer wasn’t going out and necessarily finishing first, having swimmers that worked hard to give the Chargers’ a competitor in every possible event gave the team a chance to earn points.
“Even though we had novice swimmers, as long as they were out there and they were swimming, they had a chance to earn us points,” Mattison said. “And that’s kind of how things fell for us because we had so many kids who came out and they were consistent. They came to practice and they listened and they got better and stronger. We actually had to start pulling workouts from club teams because our workouts were becoming too easy for even the newer swimmers. They didn’t know what to expect either, they just went into districts thinking that we’ll go out and try our best. We tried to fill every lane with a swimmer, we tried to make sure that we didn’t have any events that were empty and that’s kind of how we won districts.”
And with so many new swimmers finding success, it not only allows them to grow and be even better competitors next season, but Mattison noted how it has created a buzz around the program and attracted even more students to sign up for the team.
“It’s valuable in a couple of ways,” Mattison said about the team’s experience heading into next year. “One, they’re going to know what to come in and expect, but it’s also created a buzz and we have even more kids wanting to come out. We can have 30 boys and 30 girls so we’ve never had a need for roster spots but we’ve got so many kids who are already signed up and interested in coming because they’ve seen others that didn’t really know how to swim competitively come out and show up and do great. These kids just have this confidence that’s been built because they’ve seen other kids go out there and do it and find success it in. It’s pretty cool. We’ve created that environment, that’s the way swimmers are, they’re very welcoming, they’re supportive, they cheer for everyone at every event.”
Mattison and Donhaiser have even partnered with local swim clubs, including High 5 in Brandon where Mattison’s children swim, to try and not only build the skill set of their high school swimmers and help turn them into into year-round competitors, but help make the area a hotbed for swimming talent. Mattison added that High 5 has worked with the staff to meet with them, providing both advice and resources. And with so much time spent at the facility to watch her own kids swim, she’s even noticed an uptick in participation from some of the newer swimmers at Crest who have started working there to gear up for the upcoming high school season this fall.
On the individual side, Strawberry Crest was represented earlier this July at the Speedo Southern Zone Sectionals in Plantation where Hubert Pilichowski qualified for the 200 meter breaststroke finals and Michaela Walker set a personal best in the 100 meter breaststroke. Pilichowski qualified for the state meet as a sophomore and regionals as a junior. This upcoming year, as a senior, he will be a team captain in search of another state championship appearance.
In addition, multiple members of the Chargers’ team will compete at the 2022 AAU Junior Olympic Games in Greensboro, North Carolina from July 28-31.