The Verrado swim team

The Verrado swim team celebrates a state championship.

In what’s becoming somewhat of an annual tradition, the Verrado High School swim and dive program had another remarkable showing at the Division II state tournament, with its boys’ team capturing its first state title and its head coach being named Division II Coach of the Year. 

“I think now, especially this year, people realize we’re at the top of our game,” said head coach Sarah Byers.

Byers, who just finished her second season at Verrado, has quickly elevated the entire program. At last year’s state tournament, she led the Vipers to third- and fourth-place finishes with the boys’ and girls’ teams, respectively, and they broke eight school records in the process.

A year later, the boys’ team was crowned the best team in the state, and the girls had a handful of impressive individual performances at the November tournament.

Junior Makena Malkemus won the 100-yard freestyle race and finished second in the 50-yard freestyle. Malkemus was also part of the 200-yard medley relay that finished fourth. Verrado’s girls’ team finished seventh amongst the field of 20 schools.

The boys’ team was anchored by what Byers calls a “really cohesive group,” a roster of well-rounded athletes from top to bottom.

Senior Jacob Cress, an integral piece in Verrado’s first state title, helped guide the Vipers to a first-place finish in the 200-yard medley relay. He also finished second in the 100-yard fly and third in the 100-yard backstroke.

Diver John Angelic won the Division II boys’ state championship, rounding out a dream weekend at state for Verrado.

It put an exclamation point on a strange season, one that teemed with uncertainties and strict health and safety protocols.

Amidst COVID-19 concerns, Byers practiced less than usual. The team had designated days and times to be in the pool, having to share Goodyear’s YMCA facility with other schools in the district.

The coach took temperatures and asked each athlete “COVID-related questions” each practice, then charted and filed the results. On top of running a program that aimed to contend for a state title, Byers also had to do it safely and responsibly.

“There was a lot of pressure to make sure we could make the season going,” she said. “Our biggest fear was that the season would get cut short because there would be an outbreak, something would happen, someone wasn’t following the rules and they’d cancel us.”

Such has become the norm in 2020. And that Verrado performed in the way it did, while remaining safe and healthy outside of the pool, was a huge weight lifted off Byers’ shoulders.

“I felt there was a lot of pressure on me to make sure everyone was safe, just for the kids and my team and anyone we were going against,” she said. “It was a lot of pressure to make sure we were doing everything right.”

And despite Byers’ gut feeling that a program-defining weekend was imminent, those around the sport had hardly given Verrado the credit it deserved. Leading up to the events, as the media guide was released with its predicted contenders, there was no mention of the Vipers.

“I told the boys that,” Byers said. “I said, ‘Listen, they’re not even talking about us.’”

The Viper boys took that to heart, tapped into this “underdog mindset,” and roared to the first state title in school history.

The weekend earned Byers Division II Coach of the Year honors, an award voted on by all the other coaches in the state.

“I don’t think I saw that coming,” she laughed. “I was just focused on the boys winning state because I knew I had a really special group. … But (other coaches) saw Verrado just getting better and better.”

Any strong outing at a state tournament is sure to be met with plenty of emotions, as a lengthy, hard-fought season culminates in triumph. But for Byers, who once ran the Vitras Swim Club in Verrado for six years, emotions ran extra high this season.

“The thing this year that was special for me, there were a lot of kids who I coached in club when they were 8-and-unders and they just started swimming. 

“To see them go from a beginner swimmer to a state champion is really rewarding for me. It’s the reason why I’m coaching high school. It’s been really cool to watch.”