County, Madison swimmers relying on each other during transition to Baldwin Wallace

In this February 2021 file photo, Lakeside's Athena Pantoja swims the 100 butterfly during the Division I the district swim meet at Spire Institute in Harpersfield Township. Pantoja is one of four locals competing for Baldwin Wallace this season.

 Leaving home and heading off to a strange place for the first time is something that can typically be tough on just about everyone the first time they do it.

For four local high school swim standouts, and having each other has helped with that transition.

Madison graduates Jenna Parks and Cole Frisby, along with Lakeside and Conneaut graduates Athena Pantoja and Ethan Morrison, respectively, have all found themselves swimming at Baldwin Wallace University this season.

Michael Diamond, a Lakeside graduate and former assistant coach for the Dragons, is also an assistant coach at BW.

Having someone you’ve practically grown up with, joining you in the progression from high school to college athletics has been a big plus for all four swimmers.

“It’s something that has helped me a lot,” Pantoja said. “Making new friends can be a little bit of a challenge, especially if you don’t know anybody. Being able to at least know a couple of people has made me feel a little closer to home. It’s been comforting.”

Pantoja and Morrison have known each other since the time they were 10 years old. Pantoja and Parks got to know each other over the years from talking at meets. Now they are rooming together.

Morrison said having a few folks from back home is good for not only reminiscing, but has also helped with getting to know others that he’s meeting for the first time.

“It is certainly an aide to meeting other people,” Morrison said. “To know that you have four or five people that you know already and meet more people and they end up introducing you to them, it honestly helps the team to gel together quicker when you already have connections from within.”

As for transitioning to becoming a college swimmer, Parks, a four-time district qualifier while swimming for Madison, said the intensity is definitely accelerated at the college level.

“It’s definitely been a lot more challenging,” she said. “Obviously, I expected it to be more challenging, but definitely a more intense practice schedule and more intense practices overall.”

So far, though, the new swimmers have been up to the challenge. The Yellow Jackets won their first five meets before falling to Mount Union on Saturday. Each of the local swimmers has had opportunities to compete right away.

The season has been a bit of an explosion in terms of the roster size for the college program.

Though they were not around a year ago, the new recruits have been perceptive to the changes caused by the increase in numbers.

“It’s been a roller-coaster of an experience,” Pantoja said. “The team last year barely had anyone. Now, they have 26 incoming freshmen and it’s just been kind of a wild ride for us and the coaches as well.”

“It’s been a good experience though. Having such a big team, we’ve had to learn about group effort and try to figure out how to work together.”

Working together in practice has been one thing, experiencing what a college swim meet is also all about for the first time has been quite an experience.

“The competitions have been a lot tougher,” Frisby said. “In high school, our dual meets most of the time were pretty easy, it was the championship meets that were harder. But here, we grind for every meet.”

The duals are more intense, but nothing compared to the daily regiment of being a college athlet.

“It’s unreal,” Morrison said. “It’s just a totally different animal. College athletics is absolutely crazy in terms of practices and what you have to eat and working out with your classes and all that. It’s been a huge challenge, but I’ve also enjoyed the challenge.”

But having familiar faces around to enjoy it with has been nice as well.

“It’s very nice to know that I have old friends here,” Morrison said. “It’s nice to know I’m not the only guy from Ashtabula County to come here.”

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