Over the past several years, high school swimming in the Merrimack Valley Conference has been dominated by the girls. The Andover girls are in the midst of a dynasty, with 12 straight league titles. Chelmsford has consistently finished in the top five in the state meet. Haverhill junior Sarah Broderick won the state title in the 50-yard freestyle.
The boys teams, on the other hand, have been struggling. Many schools — among them Methuen, Billerica and Dracut — lack enough boys to compete as a team. The boys instead join the girls teams and swim against the girls during competitive meets — sometimes resulting in controversy.
At Haverhill High, the boys swimmers are undergoing a bit of a renaissance this winter. For the first time since the early 1990s, the Hillie boys swimming program has more swimmers than the girls team. The boys team had more than 31 candidates try out for swimming, while the girls had 28. The revival comes after Haverhill boys swimming was close to extinction when head coach George Nigro took over in 2004.
"We only had 15 swimmers when I came in 2004," Nigro said. "There were rumors abound that they were talking about cutting it. The next year we were up to 24."
The increasing number of swimmers on the team is aided by the fact that Nigro became a health/wellness teacher at the high school in 2010. He uses that class time with the students to recruit potential swimmers and further connect with swimmers on his team.
"I try to develop a sense of rapport with the kids," Nigro said. "The more of a presence you are around the school, the more likely you are to attract students."
Nigro built the program up to 30 swimmers in 2009 and has maintained that number the last two years.
This season, the Hillie swim team is hovering around .500 with a 3 win, 3 loss record as of Thursday. The team is led by Nick Roy who has already qualified for the state meet. Roy's time of 2:09.10 in the 200-yard individual medley qualified him as Haverhill's only individual entry into the state meet so far. Two of Haverhill's relay teams have already qualified for the sectional meet and Nigro hopes that at least one of them can qualify for states. He said it is still early in the season, and that some of his swimmers haven't started to concentrate on qualifying for state times just yet.
"Usually people qualify later in the season in what we call a taper," Nigro said. "We back off the yards and swimmers focus on the events that they are going to try to qualify for. That is usually around the MVC meet (Feb. 3) or during the sectional meet (Feb. 12)."
This is the second straight year that Roy has qualified for states. A season ago, he finished 30th in the 500-yard freestyle as a sophomore. He hopes to qualify for the 500-yard freestyle sometime during the remainder of the year. In addition to that, he is hopeful he can finish in the top 10 in the 200-yard individual medley.
Roy is dedicated to his sport. He often stays after practice to swim more reps with his club team, Solo Aquatics.
"I love to swim," he said. "I like the people that I swim with and I just have fun doing it."
While the numbers are high for Nigro's squad this year, he will have a daunting challenge next season. The Hillies will lose 13 seniors and Nigro anticipates that it will take a couple years to re-build the program back to the level it is now. But Nigro will worry about that when the time comes, for now he is trying to finish off the season on a positive note.
"I'm hoping for a winning record," he said. "It would be nice to end up with a winning record and I think we have a shot at that."
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