Coaches speak often of the work they do to try and fit the pieces together, especially for teams with many new parts.
At the University of Lynchburg, Brad Dunn prefers to paint a different picture.
For the Hornets’ director of men’s and women’s swimming in his first year at the helm, the upcoming season is a canvas — not a puzzle with rigid, predetermined shapes that will fill specific holes.
Instead, Dunn explained the 2019-20 campaign as a chance for creativity, a chance for a new composition, with moving parts, nuance and discovery.
“It’s constructing a work of art, mixing and balancing colors and all of those things throughout the course of the season,” said Dunn, who will lead the two teams into their first meet in nearly 50 years today. “And this weekend is our first chance for people to try some events and go from there.”
Dunn — who was tapped as director of the UL swim programs in August 2018 after several years as an assistant coach at other Division III schools — and the Hornets today will bring an end to a 48-year hiatus for the sport at Lynchburg. They take on cross-town rival Randolph at Giles Gymnasium at 6 p.m. to open the season.
Lynchburg last offered men’s swimming from 1950 to ’71 and a women’s team from ’64 to ’71. With the re-establishment of the sport, Lynchburg now sponsors 24 varsity-level athletic programs and joins 13 other Old Dominion Athletic Conference schools to offer swimming.
Thanks to a year of recruiting, the Hornets men’s and women’s teams include 17 athletes each. Ten freshmen fill roster slots on each squad.
Dunn looked at swimmers from all over and secured commitments from athletes from as far as Texas. While he looked at times and performances, Dunn said he was focused especially on building a team around individuals “who really want to be here.”
“Being able to do that, that’s where all the other success comes from,” Dunn said. “Of course, along the way, we’re looking at individual events and times and relays and the more, kind of, objective goals you can look at it.
“Yes, there’s gonna be preseason rankings … but with this being our first year competing, it’s all house money this year. We’re gonna be expectation-free, loose, create that bond and really develop swimming family.”
So far, athletes say they’ve bought in to the team-first mentality.
“Individually, everyone wants to do their best,” said Emma-Grace Spach, a freshman from Mount Pleasant, South Carolina, “because they want to contribute to the team as a whole. It takes everybody to do it.”
Dunn said he’s seen that concept play out in practical ways during his time as an assistant. In one instance, he said, the team he coached won a championship by four points. That’s the difference, he explained, between a swimmer finishing 13th and finishing 15th.
So Dunn is just as excited for the swimmers with lots of experience — like former Jefferson Forest standout Alyssa Reed, who was convinced by Dunn to return to UL for grad school this year so she could swim at the varsity level after competing on the school’s club team during her undergrad years — as the younger athletes.
In addition to the excitement that surrounds a group of athletes coaches say are skilled in a variety of strokes, the team also has tried to created a positive atmosphere by which it can coax solid results.
“A lot of times you hear people say, ‘Oh, it’s a grind,’” Chris Jennings, a sophomore from Tampa, Florida, who also plays lacrosse at UL, said of playing a sport in college, “but I don’t really think it is a grind. When you talk about grind, it’s something when you show up and you’re like, ‘Oh, I have to do this,’
“When we go to practice, everyone has the positive attitude, great energy, and it’s more of, ‘I get to go to practice today. I get to race against some of my best friends. I get to push myself [and] help other people achieve their potential.’”
Spach, who during her high school career was named to The (Charleston) Post and Courier’s all-area team, said she also has rediscovered a love for the sport since moving two states north and jumping into the pool — at the nearby Liberty Natatorium, which the Hornets will call their home — for Lynchburg.
“When I came here, when we started practicing, I remembered why I love swimming,” she said. “It’s so much fun, even though we have been putting the work in.”
Riding that momentum, Dunn said he and the team are focused now on building “shared confidence” in hopes of coming up with a perfect blend in the pool and on heat sheets. As every swimmer, with the help of coaches, finds and perfects his or her event or stroke, Dunn sees another stroke of the brush painting a new “work of art.”
And before long, Spach added, the rest of the ODAC should start to take notice of the conference’s newest piece.
“I feel like a lot of schools don’t know what’s coming,” Spach said. “I feel like we have a lot to prove and a lot to show people.”
Emily Brown covers the Hillcats, ODAC and high school sports for The News & Advance. Reach her at (434) 385-5529.