After years of competing against bigger teams in a county meet that rewards depth, Cherokee finally worked itself into position to compete for a county championship this year.
The Warriors still may still not have had quite the numbers of eventual champion, but it was a change in attitude starting at the beginning of the season that made the difference.
“I think it was just about building their attitude up,” coach Kaitlyn Smith said. “We wanted to make sure they knew they could do it. They came to me at the beginning of the season determined and motivated.”
That shift was on full display early in the county championship, where Cherokee’s boys jumped out to an early lead.
The lead remained at six points up to the final event, the 400-yard freestyle relay, and while Etowah was able to close the gap and win by a single point, Smith said the fact her team was in that position showed a lot of improvement for the program.
“It was hard,” said Smith, the 2018-19 Cherokee Tribune Boys Swim Coach of the Year. “That’s my alma mater. We didn’t know exactly where we were. We just wanted to do as well as we could. They stepped up and put us in a position to win it.”
They still could not match the numbers at Etowah, but bringing out more swimmers was an important part of Cherokee’s success this season.
That did not happen on its own, though, as improvement with the swimmers already on the team helped improve the numbers on the team.
“We’ve gotten more swimmers to the program,” Smith said. “People at school saw us doing better, so we got some swimmers out we wouldn’t normally have. We got some football players and some basketball players out we normally didn’t.”
That does not happen without cultivating the talent already in the program, though.
Smith, who swam at Etowah and collegiately at Florida Southern College, used that experience and reworked the lettering process this year and kept practices strict to help raise the performance of her team.
“Being able to talk to them about swimming mentally helps,” she said. “You have to get out of your own head and train every day as if you want to be better. There’s definitely a training process that goes into building it up.”
The improvement was not limited to the county level either.
Cherokee sent eight swimmers to the state meet and had teams in all three relays this year, as one qualifier continued to push the next.
“This year, the guys were really close,” Smith said. “As one kid would get to state, they would all get together at practice to boost the others and push them to get their times. There were just a lot of comradery there between them.”
Now, the goal for Smith is to continue to contend at the county level, if not take the next step to a title.
Half of the Warriors’ swimmers from the state meet will have graduated, but Smith said she thinks her team is ready to reload using the same formula.
“It’s going to be about building the program,” she said. “We have to get the freshmen in and build them up until they’re seniors. We do a pretty good job of bringing at least a couple freshmen to state every year until they’re getting there on their own and leading the team when they’re seniors.”