August 31, 2005 - For the Pusch Ridge Christian Academy swim team, time is of the essence.
On Sept. 8, the collection of displaced athletes will splash into competition for the first time in the school's history. The swim team is another addition to the Class 2A school and a testament to its growing trend of students and athletics.
With backpacks, geometry books, towels and sunblock strewn along the side of the pool at the Hilton El Conquistador Country Club, 10555 N. La Cañada Drive, 17 of the school's pioneering athletes take to the water everyday with visions of one day competing among the best Southern Arizona has to offer. And if not, at least it's another chance to show up a crosstown rival.
"There'll be road bumps, of course," said senior A.J. Hawkins, "but it's a building year.
"Plus, our rivals Desert Christian (High School) have a swim team, so there's something else to compete against with them."
With exactly one month to prepare a team built more or less from scratch, Pusch Ridge head coach Julie Allen will need all of her years of swimming and coaching experience.
"We're trying to get them in pretty quick here," said Allen, noting the limited practice time the squad has before it's thrown to the sharks, or in this case the Ironwood Ridge High School Nighthawks, Desert Christian High School Eagles and the St. Gregory High School Hawks - the team's first three opponents. "Really, we're just getting them in shape, here."
Before the season began, Allen said she would have liked to have started with a group of about 20 swimmers. What she got was 17: nine girls and eight boys. Getting girls to fill out the roster didn't make her nervous, it was landing enough boys to be able to compete that had Allen crossing her fingers until the first day of practice.
"I just wanted enough (boys) to have one relay team," Allen said. "Now we got enough for two."
Along with Hawkins are some talented swimmers and highly responsible students, Allen said: multisport athletes such as Shawn Bleyl, Kira Miller, Shay Duffin, Devon Kelly, Dylan Jones and Josh Spegman.
"This team is going to be good in a couple of years," said Hawkins, who, unlike the majority of the team (nine freshman), is a senior.
With only 259 students in the whole school, putting swimmers in the pool means taking athletes away from other sports. With the exception of two or three, nearly every swimmer on the squad plays another sport for Pusch Ridge. A quick poll reveals baseball, football, golf, soccer, softball and volleyball players. Only football and volleyball are in season right now, however.
For some of the team's midlevel talent and novice swimmers, Allen may be the perfect mentor.
A former high school state champion in Birmingham, Ala., Allen has a swimming career that has made her an All-Star on teams in Arkansas, North Carolina and Georgia, as well as Alabama. She qualified as a Junior National Qualifier at age 11, holding a national Top 16 time as well as a North Carolina state record. Allen was a state champ in high school every year from her sophomore through senior campaigns, earning Junior National championships in the 200- and 400-individual medleys in 1987. She competed in the 1988 Olympic time trials before heading to Arizona State on a swimming scholarship.
Her ASU loyalties often cause amiable rivalries in the home and among college friends, considering her husband, Greg Allen, is the head coach for the University of Arizona women's golf team.
For several years, Allen said she subtly put out feelers about coaching the Pusch Ridge team, should the school ever decide to add one, while attending church with other members of the school's administration. Finally, the call came.
For the upstart team, finding a home wasn't easy. Ideally, Allen would have liked her squad to swim at the Oro Valley Pool in James Kriegh Park. The pool, practically across the street from the 2A school, would have provided easy access for students making their way to practice and meets. With bigger programs - Canyon Del Oro High School and Ironwood Ridge High School (the Lions' opponent to open the season on Sept. 8) - already calling the Oro Valley Pool home, finding a time slot other than 6 in the morning or 8 at night to hold practices proved downright impossible.
The Hilton El Conquistador Country Club eventually adopted the team, giving it a place to call home for practices. All of Pusch Ridge's competitions will be held on the road at Fort Lowell Park, at the Ott YMCA and even at James Kriegh.
Wherever the team swims, Allen and its swimmers expect to face some choppy waters starting out. Allen said she hopes that won't dissuade them from future swimming.
For now, she says she will concentrate on technique and form, for which she is a self-described stickler, often bringing her swimming suit to practice and jumping in the pool with her team. Some of her swimmers haven't swum in three years and some never have competitively.
For them and their teammates, the key will be to gradually improve.
"I know the difference from the first meet to the last will be huge," the coach said. To inspire them, she often tells the story of a golfer whom her husband once allowed to walk on to the UA team. Despite shooting in the mid-80s, that golfer, through hard work, blossomed into a Top 10 in the nation golfer.
"You never know what can happen."