By SCOTT ELLIOTT
Sports Information Director
A true craftsman understands that any great structure takes time to build.
Unforeseen challenges and obstacles often litter the path to completion as well as modifications and improvements.
For fourth-year Pitt-Bradford swimming coach Ed Bahan, the parallels between constructing a building and a sports program are similar. He stepped in after the swimming program’s inaugural season with the resolve to build Pitt-Bradford into something great, and this past season he did just that.
With sophomores Fernando Petrilli and Matt Patterson leading the way in the pool, the men’s team established a new school record with eight wins and duplicated its second place finish at the AMCC championships.
To appreciate how far the swimming program has come, you have to understand its beginnings. The men won one meet in their first season and only four more over the next two years. The four wins last year were considered a breakthrough before the men upstaged that achievement this season.
For senior co-captains Roland Cross and Lee Atkins, this season represented a special growth within the team.
“It was fun seeing the team grow,” said Cross.
“When I first came here, we were a team of maybe six guys, and each year we continued to grow. To be 8-1, I feel like I accomplished something great.”
Atkins saw connections between his own individual growth and that of the team. Prior to walking on the squad three years ago, he had never swum competitively and admitted to spending much of the first year trying to learn the nuances of the sport.
“It was as much a personal growth for me as it was for the team,” Atkins said. “And that is reflected on the fact that everything Roland is saying, what is happening with me is the exact same thing that is happening with the team we are growing and getting better each year.”
The men opened the year with a third-place finish at the Panther Relays and a triumph over conference opponent Penn State Altoona, but it was the Buffalo State meet that set the tone for the remainder of the season.
It took a while before the Panther swim team, founded in 2006, won its first meet over Penn State Altoona on senior day in January 2010. The jubilant swimmers celebrated by pushing head coach Ed Bahan in the pool.
“Our big focus up front was Buffalo State” Bahan said. “It was a close meet last year, and I knew we had a chance to try and beat them this year. “That meet really started the cascade of wins. It was very rewarding for the men.”
The Panthers turned around and cleared another hurdle the following day, edging Saint Vincent by a point to remain undefeated.
The turning point against Saint Vincent came late in the meet as Petrilli and Patterson recorded a one-two finish in the breaststroke. Patterson rarely swam the breaststroke prior to this year, but that became a common theme throughout the season, everyone making sacrifices to score points.
“We had a lot of guys willing to swim different events and even longer events,” said Bahan. “A lot of my best swimmers weren’t necessarily swimming in their best races every meet.”
Bahan also credited the team’s depth and willingness of everyone to contribute.
“The meets are scored to fifth place, so a lot of the reasons we had a successful season was because of swimmers who don’t get all the recognition,” Bahan said. “Everyone had the willingness to swim off events or different events to score points.”
While swimmers like Andrew Koenig, Matt Cox, Ryan Anderson, Josh Anderson, Joe Kelly, Richie Brand, Alex Steel and Tyler Hegburg often swam in the shadows of their teammates, their contributions were just as important, if not greater, toward the eight wins and signal the depth of the program.
“A lot of the younger guys really stepped up this year,” said junior Matt Anderson. “Without them, we wouldn’t have done anything. They were big contributors to the team.”
During the program’s infancy, the Panthers were challenged by their lack of depth. Under Bahan, Pitt-Bradford has quickly built a pool of talent that strives to improve each time it hits the water.
“We all take pride in ourselves and in the team, which made this season special,” junior David Taylor said. “Everyone on the team worked hard to improve, which is another reason why this season was truly amazing.”
The team credits its overall success to chemistry, but also, to the competitive nature within the group. Each practice, Bahan challenged his athletes with different races and by doing so, he instilled confidence.
“Every day I try to have it in their minds that they can swim fast if they choose to,” Bahan said. “So when the meet comes, swimming fast is not big deal, it’s right there at their fingertips.”
Practice races were often testy as the competitive nature of any athlete refuses to accept defeat even amongst friends. That mentality carried over to meets, especially for Petrilli, who would go on to be named AMCC Swimmer of the Year in February. It was the second time he had received the honor.
“Every team there is that one guy who has a chance to beat me,” Petrilli said. “And I enjoy that challenge and worked hard to always have the top time.”
While the eight wins for the men are a testament to the upward arc of the program, they also bring a greater responsibility.
“Once you start to win, it’s expected of you to keep winning,” Bahan said. “So the whole focus now is to put a better team in the water next year than we did this year.
“The bar of our win-loss record this year and the depth of our program has been raised significantly.”
While the women did not enjoy quite the success as the men, Bahan saw progression in his women’s squad this year.
“The growth and development and success of the women’s team is related to the athletes who come to practice and are committed to the team,” Bahan said. “It’s not just about the athletes who have the talent to set records and win meets, and I saw that this year.
“I fully expect the women to win in the near future at the same clip as the men did this year in the near future.”
The Panthers also qualified a new program best four swimmers, including the first-ever relay squad, for the Eastern College Athletic Conference Swimming and Diving Championships in Annapolis, Md.
For Patterson, who is expected to be among the team leaders next year and one of the top swimmers in the AMCC, next season presents the team with even greater opportunities. (Petrilli, an engineering major, transferred at the end of the 2012 academic year.)
“Next year I think our goal is to qualify more swimmers for the ECAC Championships,” Patterson said. “That was a fun weekend to be part of, and we want to see someone finish in the top 10.”
Expectations will be even higher next year, but if anything, that’s a testament to how far the program has come in a short time.