New Darton men’s and women’s swim coach Will Breehl, second from right, and assistant coach Major Robinson take a second away from practice this week to pose for a photo with this year’s team in advance of their fall season opener in November. Breehl, a former Division I swimmer at Louisville, was promoted during the summer to head coach, and his first move was to hire Robinson, a D-I standout at Utah, as his assistant. Together, they plan to take the program to a whole new level. (David Mann/Darton State College)
ALBANY — Will Breehl knew the second he hung up the telephone this summer that Major Robinson was the man for the job.
“He was willing to pay his own way out here from Utah to prove how much he wanted this job, and he believed in what I was trying to build,” Darton State College’s first-year head coach said of the hiring process this summer to find his new assistant head coach. “Major showed up in a suit, stuck around and worked with the kids while he was here, and I knew immediately he could help us take this program to new heights.”
Together, Robinson and Breehl, who served as an assistant for four years under former head coach Molly Gilbert before being promoted this offseason when Gilbert resigned, are bringing a wealth of experience and knowledge to the Cavaliers’ pool in 2013 that the program has never experienced in its two decades of existence. Both coaches are former standout swimmers at the NCAA Division I level — Breehl at Louisville and Robinson at the University of Utah — and they plan to steal a page from famed chef Emeril Legasse and take things up a notch this year.
“Our goal is get every swimmer we have to the highest level possible, whether they’re on our (men’s and women’s team at Darton) or the club team (for kids ages 6-16) at the school, the Aqua Darts,” said Robinson, a former team captain and three-time Mountain West Conference selection for the Utes who was hired this summer. “When I told Will my vision (during our interview), it was right in line with his. And I think the change has been noticeable in just the few months I’ve been here helping him.”
Or in Breehl’s words, “Swimming just got a lot more serious around here.”
That’s almost hard to believe considering the DSC swimming program is one of just three sports at the school that has won an NJCAA National Championship. In fact, swimming (4) has more than the other two: golf (3) and wrestling (1). And even when the program had all its scholarship money cut in 2011 — two years after Breehl arrived — the Cavs and Lady Cavs never missed a beat, winning three individual national championships this past season and scoring several All-American nods.
“It’s tough without scholarship money, but we still get great talent,” Breehl said. “Hopefully, if we continue to perform well, (the scholarship money) may come back. And then we’ll be even stronger.”
In the meantime, it’s all about developing the future and present of Darton swimming for Breehl and Robinson, who is partially tasked with running the Aqua Darts youth program. The Darts had roughly 10 swimmers five years ago, and each year since Breehl has been at Darton, that number has slowly climbed. Robinson’s arrival made that number rise even more, and that’s crucial to the vitality of both teams. After all, the Aqua Darts’ private training sessions aren’t just a means to finance the college team, these young area swimmers are training to be the area’s next stars — whether it’s at Darton or somewhere else.
“Having Major here — and the kids and parents seeing that there are two coaches who are very involved and hands on — has made the program grow even more,” said Breehl, who estimates the USA Swimming-certified club now has around 50 swimmers as young as four and as old as 18. “Before, I was stretched pretty thin between doing the Darts and helping Molly with the team, and I was trying to do too much with both — working with seven groups by myself sometimes, compared to really focusing on two or three now with Major helping. But now that he’s here — getting up with me at 5 a.m., helping me run the morning and afternoon sessions — I feel we’re progressing faster than ever before.”
And the team has noticed the transformation.
“Major has definitely brought in a stern attitude we needed. It’s a lot less laid-back than it’s ever been, and I mean that in the best possible way,” said sophomore Ethan Wolovick, a returning sophomore who is joined by fellow returners Gabe Downey, J.D. Russo, Ben Smith, former Westover star Bill Spencer and reigning NJCAA 1-meter and 3-meter national dive champ Crawford Berry. “It’s no longer just, ‘Come by the pool, get here when you get here, do what you can on your own.’ We’re all on board with these strict practice sessions, sticking to it. And if we don’t, we’re in trouble. That’s been good for everyone. It’s made us more of a team and a lot less selfish.
“Everyone bought in from Day 1. And we understand that if you don’t do the work, you can’t reach your goal. And for us, that’s to win a national championship.”
Sophomore Sarah Hoop, Darton’s reigning 1-meter national diving champ, said she can’t wait for the dramatic improvement the team has shown this summer to carry over to the pool when Darton’s season opens Nov. 2. That’s when the Cavs will have with a dual meet against South Georgia College, the only other junior college swimming program in the state.
“I noticed a difference right away this summer. Harder practices, different practices. We’re learning new techniques, and the whole team atmosphere is just better. Everyone’s working well together,” said Hoop, who is one of several returners that include Sandra Guerrero, Ashley Delgado and Kelsey Karniglia. “Major’s a really good coach, and him and Will work really well together. They’ve both swam at the top level, so everyone’s really buying in to what they’re teaching.”
That level of experience each coach brings has also helped develop a healthy respect for the coaching staff, considering it wasn’t too long ago that Robinson, 23, and Breehl, 29, were in the pool themselves, competing at the highest level.
“When you have two guys who are coming from places that obviously everyone here would like to be (swimming for a Division I program), it’s great,” Hoop said. “They’ve been there, and they know how to get you there.”
Hoop and her fellow divers also added a third mind to the mix this offseason when the Cavs hired a new dive coach — and he’s a good one. Ed Goodman, a native of Moultrie, returns to the program after two years away. The former University of Cincinnati star has served as head diving coach at the renowned Moss Farms Diving Club for the past eight years and has trained national champions and medalists at the Junior Pan Am Games.
“I definitely think, right now, we have one of the strongest junior college coaching staffs in the nation,” Breehl said when asked about the addition of Goodman.
Darton will find out if that’s true in early March.
That’s when the Cavs will head back to NJCAA nationals in Fort Pierce, Fla., where they’ll get a chance to follow through on one massive goal they set on Day 1 of practice this summer.
“All year, we’ve had one motto: ‘Stop 40,’” Wolovick said, referencing JUCO powerhouse Indian River Community College’s unprecedented run of 39 straight national championships in men’s swimming — the longest title streak of any collegiate sport, at any level, in NJCAA or NCAA Division I, II or III history. “So if we can do it this year, we’ll keep them from winning 40 in a row. That’s our goal. And I think we all really feel that if it’s ever going to happen, this is the year — and the team — that can (stop the streak). That’s how confident we are right now.”
NOTES: Breehl said it’s never easy to convince a kid to try swimming as his or her primary sport when he’s up against other sports that are more popular, such as football, baseball and basketball. His pitch, however, is simple — and often effective. “It’s obviously great exercise, and some parents want their kids to do it just so they learn water safety and their kids don’t have an accident,” Breehl said. “But I also tell kids and parents that because swimming is a sport that goes against the grain and is not as popular and doesn’t get the recognition that other sports do, you establish yourself as an individual, learn to go your own way and don’t always follow the crowd.” … Two years ago, Division I programs stopped scheduling Darton in dual meets because the results were so one-sided. But now that Georgia Tech is actively recruiting several of Darton’s swimmers, the Cavs will compete against the Yellow Jackets in February just before nationals, hoping to prove the program has come a long way since the last time they swam against one another. “I really feel like we could go up there and steal a couple of races we’re not supposed to win,” Robinson said. “If we do that, that’d be huge for the program and these kids.” … After his senior season at Utah, Robinson swam in the most recent U.S. Olympic trials … Robinson and Breehl both specialized in the 100-meter and 200-meter breaststroke, backstroke and butterfly in college … For any young swimmer interested in joining the Aqua Darts group, you can call Breehl or Robinson at (229) 317-6899.