NAUGATUCK — It’s really hard not to expect to challenge for a Naugatuck Valley League title when you have the encouragement of a coach like Jim McKee, a three-time Connecticut Swim Coach of the Year with 24 league titles under his belt over the course of 37 seasons.
As McKee watched over practice recently on the Naugatuck pool deck, it was quite clear that he had all the confidence in the world about his team’s potential.
“We have 50 kids and 30 of them never competed on a high school team before,” McKee said. “So we are working hard to cover all the basics: how to dive into the pool, how to move efficiently through the water and all the basic things you need to know how to do in order to be successful.”
Those demographics won’t lower McKee’s expectations, though.
“We have a good mix of experience and youth,” he said. “We are a solid and deep team and we are a good challenger for a title. I know no other way to approach a season.”
Naugy has won four titles in the last six years but fell to fifth at last year’s NVL championships despite the record-breaking performance by diver Isabelle Moody, who became the first female diver to win the NVL boys diving championship under the tutelage of coach Brian Mariano.
Leading the way for the Greyhounds run at a title are senior captains Mikhail Burdoev, Matt Hall, and Eric Hanley along with Scott Sill and George Vygoder.
Fellow seniors Ryan Lewis, Roberto Rodrigues, Ashin Sajjad, and Jonathan Savage create a solid base of upperclassman leadership.
Naugatuck has a few other swimmers who gained experience last year and are ready for the next challenge. Juniors Adam Branco, Jake Morrissey, Mitch Santos, and Vincent Thoren along with sophomore Michael Lauer give the ‘Hounds some solid depth.
“We have a lot of guys, some with experience and some with a lot of potential,” McKee said. “And every team in this league better watch out, as far as I’m concerned.”
The influx of young swimmers has created a unique situation for McKee.
“We are in a phase where I usually have three or four kids who are new to the sport,” he said. “We have 30 this year but they are all athletes and athletes want to succeed. There is a learning curve so we want to have constant communication.”
That communication, he said, is important to keeping their confidence high.
“There may be at a point where they think they are failing but actually they are doing quite well,” McKee said. “They are beginning to learn how to build endurance and to compete. All the little precise details may seem like minutia but it’s not. They are learning how to pace themselves and do all the little things they haven’t had to do ‘til this point.”
The Greyhounds begin the season with a big challenge, hosting one of the top teams in the state in Glastonbury on Dec. 14. But like every other meet, McKee is less concerned about what the Tomahawks do as he is about what his own team can achieve.
“We can’t control what other teams are doing so I don’t even worry about it, not that I’ve ever worried about an opponent,” McKee said. “We have too much to do in order to get the most out of our team than to concern myself with what another team is doing or what they have. If there is a team out there that is loaded it wouldn’t change one bit what I’m doing with this team. I’m very positive that we are going to be competitive and challenge for a league title.”