Big Girls on Campus Vineland's swim team soaks up glory usually given to boys' sports.

Posted: January 23, 2005

The three girls in big red jackets, with strong broad shoulders and hair still slightly wet from practice, set an imposing tone to the center table in the cafeteria.

Surrounding them are their groupies - boys who want to be seen with the swimmers and show their respect by carrying the girls' lunch trays.

"We can beat you up and bench more than you," junior swimmer Victoria Bonifield teased senior Tommy Tobolski.

"I know you can," he responded.

At Vineland High School, where boys dote on the girls' swim team, it's a rare role reversal of the typical high school athletic pecking order.

The girls' swim team - winner of four consecutive state championships - is the pride and joy of this blue-collar town.

"Everyone knows who we are, even the school security guard, and random people in the grocery store come up to us," senior swimmer Karly Daplyn said.

Posters of the team can be found in nearly every classroom in the school and all over town, from General Custard's ice cream stand to the local fire station.

Every winning time for each swimmer is broadcast over morning announcements the day after a meet.

The team's tradition of success is visible everywhere at the school. The main entrance of the Vineland South building has a giant swim mural on the wall, the only mural in the school dedicated to a sports team.

Coach John A. Casadia Jr. receives dozens of letters each year from state senators and board of education members congratulating him for his leadership and his team's success.

Even at Germantown Academy in Fort Washington, Montgomery County, where Dick Shoulberg has coached dozens of swimmers to Olympic fame, swimming has never garnered the same kind of community recognition.

Would local stores have pictures of his swimmers up? Shoulberg could think of only a handful of examples. "Usually it would take someone getting to the Olympics. And even then, I doubt anyone would recognize them," he said.

Yet at Vineland, home of the Fighting Clan, Casadia has produced 25 all-American swimmers since 1978. No one has made the Olympics - in part because the school draws only from local talent already living in the district.

The amount of respect and attention paid to the Vineland girls' swim team is rarely seen in high schools, according to Michael Sachs, a professor of sports psychology at Temple.

"In general, you see the boys' football team getting most of the respect, regardless of how successful a team is," he said.

The wins

For 30 years, Casadia has done what many New Jersey public school coaches consider impossible: He's generated national results.

The team is consistently in the top 25 in the nation as ranked by the National Interscholastic Swimming Coaches Association.

Last year, 12 girls qualified for the New Jersey Meet of Champions, and the team won all three relay races and set a state record in the 200-yard freestyle relay.

Only six South Jersey high schools have swimming pools. Vineland is one of them.

Even in Pennsylvania, few programs at public schools have reached legendary status - such as the North Penn boys' swim team. At North Penn, the strong football team still dominates the school's sports culture.

Most high school teams include club swimmers who spend most of their practice time training with their club team. In New Jersey, club swimmers are required to show up at only six high school practices all season.

But Casadia's swimmers are not allowed to swim for another team during the season.

"The girls give up a lot for me. Most of them will not get to go to the far-away meets that club teams will take them to," Casadia said.

That means many of the girls end up losing a chance to participate in junior nationals and other high-profile events.

John Carroll, coach of the South Jersey Wahoos competitive club team, said that Casadia has managed to make his team so visible that college coaches know to pay attention to the Vineland program.

"On the other hand, many of these girls aren't swimming year-round. They could be even better," Carroll said.

The methods

To generate the team's results, Casadia requires a level of commitment especially demanding for high school sports.

The girls practice three mornings a week at 5:30 a.m. and have an afternoon practice every day. Each Saturday, the girls swim for four hours with only a five-minute snack break. And after practice, they're expected to do yoga and weight-lifting.

Daplyn eats her way through morning classes - a handful of Burger King hash browns, Kix cereal and a fruit cup in precalculus, Jell-O in Latin, and Cheez-Its and Gatorade in English class.

"If teachers don't let us eat, we fall asleep," sophomore Liz DiRenzo said. "Sometimes, focusing in class is so hard because you're tired from morning practice."

Casadia's methods have earned him both praise and criticism. He's been a guest at dozens of lectures, including this year's American Swimming Coaches Association meeting, and usually talks about his philosophy of creating a unified team.

But his intense program - he is aided by assistant coaches John Malatesta Sr. and Debbie Hemphill - gives other high school coaches pause.

"John is certainly one of the coaches you look up to and admire, but you wonder whether you could ever ask your kids do do what he asks," Schalick swim coach Linda DuBois said.

The coach

Community support and dedicated swimmers are only part of the equation. Casadia is the rest.

He is a thin man with grayish-black hair and spindly legs who claims to have never swum a competitive stroke in his life.

At 5:30 in the morning, he alternates between yelling "Go, go, go! Who are you waiting for?" to singing "Oh, what a beautiful morning. . ." while compulsively pacing around the pool deck. Usually, he has a giant wet spot on his shirt - the result of hugging a swimmer after a particularly impressive performance.

Everyone, including principal Charles D. Ottinger, calls him simply "Coach."

"Coach has done so much for the school. He really is a driving force behind people being proud of coming here," Ottinger said.

Casadia writes a weekly newsletter, the Buoy, for the girls, parents and alumni. Each year, he meticulously prepares a 300-plus-page yearbook, filled with pictures, detailed records and letters from Vineland bigwigs toasting the girls' success.

Swimming trophies outnumber those from any other team in the school, taking up their own trophy case, while track, football and other sports share just one.

All of this can mean a big adjustment for swimmers once they leave Vineland.

Tia Bassano, now a freshman swimmer at Tufts, said that her current teammates do not believe her when she talks about how much recognition she received for her swimming.

"They look at me weird when I talk about our posters and stuff," she said.

The big fear

But all of this tradition and attention comes with certain expectations from the community. Sometimes, the girls allow themselves to ponder what would happen if they stopped winning.

"Would anyone care? I'd like to think they would, just because of the tradition," DiRenzo said.

Sachs disagrees. "For a girls' sport to retain that much value as a losing team, well, I wouldn't expect that to last very long," he said.

As Vineland senior Ross Romano said: "If they started losing, yeah, we know they work hard, but they'd just be like pretty much every other team in the school."

Contact suburban staff writer Nikki Usher at 856-779-3234 or nusher@phillynews.com.

comments powered by Disqus
|
|
|
|
|