Avon Grove celebrates the state champions
● By Steven Hoffman
The cheers were deafening and then grew even louder as the Avon Grove High School girls’ swimming and diving team entered the school gymnasium Tuesday morning to celebrate its PIAA AAA state championship victory. A drumline and a full squad of cheerleaders encouraged the crowd to reach new heights of enthusiasm.
As they walked to a podium set up on the far side of the gym, each swimmer smiled brightly as the crowd showed its appreciation for the extraordinary accomplishments that brought home the first state championship in swimming and diving in school history. The path to the gym that morning already included stops at each of the district's schools for the athletes to soak up the accolades. But, in reality, the path to this stage and this moment started many years earlier and involved countless hours of hard work and sacrifice by each person and their families. This crowning accomplishment was years in the making, even if the swimmers' success came in quick bursts of greatness measured in tenths of a second.
They assembled—likely for one of the last times—as a team: seniors Emma Brinton and Sophie May; juniors Olivia Paoletti, Serena Derderian, and Clare McGovern; sophomore Rabea Pfaff; and freshmen Sydney Paglia and Isabella Paoletti. And they enjoyed the moment.
Vanessa Robtison, the school's athletic director, stepped to the microphone and said that it was with “great pride and overwhelming joy” that the school welcomed home the state championship team. Robtison explained that the swimmers on the stage turned in such a strong performance at states that the diving portion of the competition on March 26 had been anticlimactic: Avon Grove had such a lead built up by then that no other team could catch them, regardless of the diving results.
Avon Grove's victory at states was impressive, but hardly unexpected. The swimming program's success has been building in recent years. The squad posted an 8-0 record in the highly competitive Ches-Mont League this season—the third year in a row that the team has been undefeated in dual meets. They finished a strong second in districts.
Entering the season, head coach Kelly Burk and assistant coach Chic McKnelly had high expectations. The girls on the team have rewritten the school's record books in the last few years.
“Before this season, we knew that good things could happen,” Burk said.
To win the state championship, Avon Grove relied on its team of consistently strong performers. Brinton, Paglia, May, and Olivia Paoletti won the gold in the 200 medley relay. It was the first time in school history that a relay team has won the gold at states. Paoletti also picked up gold medals in the 200 IM and 100 breast stroke, on her way to being selected as the Swimmer of the Meet during states. By the time they were gathered together on a podium with the entire school population watching to accept the state championship trophy, this group had grown accustomed to the accolades.
In the midst of the state championship celebration, Burk expressed her gratitude to the school and to the athletes on the team.
“This is a bit overwhelming,” she said. “I just so proud of this team.”
That sentiment was shared by everyone in the Avon Grove community, it seemed.
“Any time you can recognize kids for a great effort, it's a great day for the school community,” said high school principal Scott DeShong. “The kids on the team are all good students. They put in a lot of hard work in the pool and in the classroom. They are great representatives of their families and the school.”
Robtison praised the hard work of the team's coaches. She said that Burk is a great communicator, which helps the athletes achieve to the best of their abilities. The coaches also put each performer in the best position to succeed, which isn't always easy in this sport.
Regarding Burk, Robtison said, “She is an outstanding coach. She puts the kids in the program before herself. She loves every one of these kids.”
After the team had received the state championship trophy, it was time to unveil the banner that will immortalize their accomplishment. Together, the athletes and coaches tugged on a rope, the cover dropped, and the entire crowd could see the names that future generations of Avon Grove High School students will see: Brinton, May, Paoletti, Derderian, McGovern, Pfaff, Paglia, Paoletti, Burk and McKnelly. The 2017 state champions.
“It's a great day for the school. We're so happy for these girls,” said Avon Grove superintendent Dr. Christopher Marchese. “These are the things that bring a school district together. It's a wonderful day for Avon Grove.”