'I think it's great': Auburn's decision to merge swimming programs paying dividends

AUBURN — After a handful of rough years, Auburn High’s varsity swimming team has returned to a healthy place. 

Citing declining participation numbers and inability to genuinely compete at most dual meets, the Auburn school district decided in August that the 2022-23 winter season would be the Maroons’ first as a combined program. 

The girls team, which previously swam in the fall, would join the boys team that swims in the winter. 

The Maroons hosted Baldwinsville in a meet at the Auburn YMCA on Wednesday. If the atmosphere — which featured competitive races and bleachers filled with competitive spectators — is any indication, Auburn’s decision has paid early dividends. 

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“The boys and the girls on the team swim together for the YMCA Stingrays, so it made sense to combine,” Auburn coach Rich Hamberger said. “They all get along, the team spirit is there and all the cheering is there. It’s worked out well. We’ve actually won some meets, which boosts team confidence as well. 

“Having to go to meets with only six or seven kids, and knowing what the outcome was gonna be before you even begin — that was really hard for three or four years. People were on board and listened, and I think it’s great.”

The change did not come without other considerations. Accustomed to competing in the fall, girls swimmers have had to adjust to a new schedule (which could create conflicts with other sports) and new qualifying standards for sectional and state meets. 

Hamberger said his female swimmers have been positive about the change, noting that several have already qualified for sectional meets while others simply focus on their year-to-year time improvement. 

He singled out Abigail Smith as one of the Maroons’ female swimmers who’s already qualified for sectionals in multiple events (100 backstroke and 500 freestyle), despite facing boys’ standards. 

“The girls are right there in practice competing with the boys, and some are beating the boys. They’re good, they’re fast. There’s been no complaints,” Hamberger said. 

On Wednesday, the Maroons took first-place finishes in five events against the Bees (the final two events, the 100 breaststroke and 400 free relay, were used for exhibition). 

Riley Fitzgerald touched the wall first in the 200 individual medley (2:24.68), Jack Dalziel won the 500 freestyle (6:02.98) and Matthew Crounse won the 100 breaststroke (1:26.80). 

Auburn’s team of Crounse, Logan Hall, Riley McMillan and Fitzgerald took first in the 200 free relay (1:44.01), while McMillan, Hall, Dalziel and Colin Ringwood won the 400 free relay (3:58.29). 

Hamberger noted several other times he was excited about, including Hall’s third-place time in the 50 free (26.11) that obtained the sectional qualifier, Ringwood’s improved time in the 100 butterfly, Julian McLeod’s performance in the 100 breaststroke, and Dalziel’s performance in the 500 free. 

The latter, Hamberger thinks, is also on the cusp for a sectional berth. 

“(Hall) has been trying and trying and trying. Today he finally did it, which is awesome,” Hamberger said. “Jack’s gotta break 6:00.99, so he’s right there. He’s gonna do it, it’s in there. He’s just gotta keep the same pace throughout.”

Halfway through the meet, the teams paused to celebrate seniors on both sides and continue the tradition of seniors’ parents jumping into the pool while fully clothed. 

This year’s Maroons squad includes five seniors, who Hamberger commemorated for their achievements in the pool and as academics. 

“What a smart group of kids. The schools they’re going to and the fields they’re going into, it blows my mind. The knowledge they have and the smarts to study biomedical fields, physician’s assistants, law … it’s unbelievable,” Hamberger said. “They have dreams and they’re gonna reach them.”

Auburn has two dual meets remaining, one next Friday at Cicero-North Syracuse followed by the season finale Jan. 31 at Pulaski. The Maroons then compete at the Section III Class A championships, Feb. 15 at Nottingham. 

Sports reporter Justin Ritzel can be reached at 282-2257 or at justin.ritzel@lee.net. Follow him on Twitter @CitizenRitz.