Before Sarah Byers and the Verrado High School Swim and Dive program set out on their first season together, they came together to discuss their goals for the year.
Chief among those goals, they aimed to go undefeated in the regular season, they wanted to create a better team atmosphere and they wanted to do better at the state tournament.
Check, check and check.
It was a slam-dunk of a year in Byers’ inaugural season as head coach. The Vipers broke eight school records at the Nov. 7-8 AIA Division II State Championship. The boys’ team roared to a third-place finish and the girls’ finished in fourth.
“I feel like the kids weren’t expecting it, but I was expecting it,” Byers said proudly. “I told them all, ever since the beginning of the season, I told the boys, ‘You guys can be in the top-three.’ I told the girls, ‘You can be in the top five.’
“As the meet started going and as we started putting more people in finals, I think they started to go, ‘Oh, wait. We can do this, we can beat these other teams that we haven’t beaten before.’ I think they finished where I knew they could.”
The Vipers were led by senior standout Jadan Nabor, who won both the 200-yard IM and 100-yard backstroke. He was responsible for breaking two of Verrado’s eight records, which just so happened to be two of his own records, which he set last year. Nabor announced his commitment to Auburn University in March.
Sophomore Makena Malkemus finished second in the 100-yard freestyle and fourth in the 50-yard freestyle. Senior Jacob Cress took home second in the 100-yard butterfly.
Verrado’s boys’ relay team finished second and third in the 200-yard medley and 400-yard freestyle, respectively. Its girls’ relay squad finished third in the 200-yard freestyle and fourth in the 200-yard medley.
While the Vipers got major contributions from its senior studs, Byers was thrilled with the showing from her underclassmen. Malkemus, though just a sophomore, has now competed at two state tournaments, and she seems primed to win several events before she graduates.
Ryan Tiffany was one of several freshmen who qualified and performed quite well at state. In one of his events, sandwiched between upperclassmen, he finished first among the freshmen. That, he said, made for a solid showing at his first state tournament.
“I think by the time I’m an upperclassman, I can eventually win an event one day, which would be really cool,” he said, “but I felt like I did pretty well.”
Byers, who was hired in March, previously ran Vitras Swim Club, a youth club team based in Verrado.
“She really listens to us,” Malkemus said, “like when we told her at state we didn’t like the order of the relay and we asked her if we could switch it. She was like, ‘Yes, do what you want to do and what you think is best for the team.’”
Byers upped the ante of the entire program, from top to bottom. They practiced more, they practiced longer. Many of them were hanging out outside of the pool, too, which only strengthened their bond when it came to swimming.
And the current state of Verrado’s swim and dive program is in pristine shape. Though they’ll lose Nabor, along with a chunk of seniors from the girls’ team, Byers is content going into her first off-season.
“Makena pulled the most number of points for girls. And she still has two more years. I actually think the girls’ team is going to be a little bit stronger next year, even though we’re losing the most, and the boys’ team might be a little bit weaker on the relays, but points-wise, I think we’ll be in the top-five, for sure.
“I think Verrado will always be strong.”
Malkemus said the key to another strong season is “definitely just keep working hard, and keep putting the work into wanting to be better. If you don’t want to be better, you won’t get better.”