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Western Massachusetts to hold unofficial swimming championships

It’s not the perfect solution, but that won’t matter too much to western Massachusetts high school swimmers when they hit the pool early next week.

On Friday afternoon, the Massachusetts Interscholastic Athletic Association lifted its outright ban on any sectional swimming championship, so the area’s schools have agreed to reinstate the event without MIAA sanctioning.

“It’s great news that we all get our chance to shine after all, even if it is unofficial,” said Easthampton’s Jess Harper, who won a pair of individual titles last year. “Our team’s response (Thursday) went from disbelief to devastation, especially for our seniors. But we turned that into determination and all the teams worked together to show how much swimming and this meet means to our area. We’re so appreciative to everyone who put in time and effort for our sakes.”

The girls meet is scheduled for Monday at Westfield High School, while the boys will swim Tuesday at Chicopee High. The tentative start time for both is 4:30 p.m.

“It’s been a whirlwind of emotions, from sadness and despair to the excitement of watching everyone work together to make this happen,” said South Hadley coach Tara Cole. “It was a long, difficult day, but I’m thoroughly impressed with the swimming community in western Mass. This is pretty amazing.”

No spectators will be allowed inside the venues and none of the times will count toward qualifying for the state meet. However, team points will be counted and champions crowned.

“The MIAA won’t recognize the team champion, but we’ll come up with something to call the winning teams,” said Northampton girls coach Jim Hirtle. “The liability factor was the biggest issue, but with no spectators the chances of something bad happening are slim. But if something does happen, the schools will band together and reciprocate with each other.”

Harper said, “It won’t be quite the same without our families and friends in the stands. Their energy is what fuels us as we compete. And it’s unfortunate for those who are hundredths of a second away from qualifying for states and won’t have their times count, but that’s more understandable because it really wouldn’t be fair to the other swimmers in the state.”

While a good number of swimmers lose an opportunity to earn a spot at states, the majority are simply pleased to swim one more time this season.

“A lot of these kids worked three, four years just to perform once at western Mass.,” said Cole. “They just wanted a chance in this meet. They’ve been training the past few weeks for this. Like every other team, my kids are ecstatic. For them, we were willing to do whatever it took.”

The MIAA cancelled all weekend sectional meets on Thursday because the eastern Mass. championships couldn’t possibly be rescheduled before next weekend’s state meets.

The decision set off a 24-hour firestorm of protest to the MIAA by athletic directors, coaches and family members of swimmers. A Facebook page titled Bring Back Western Mass Swimming and Diving and a Twitter hashtag #bringbackwesternmass elicited responses from Olympic swimmers Ryan Lochte and Missy Franklin.

“It’s wild the amount of support we’re seeing across the country,” said Hirtle. “It seems like everyone involved in swimming is trying to help in some way. I guess the MIAA was getting hammered pretty hard with emails and decided to let us put the meet on ourselves.”

In response to the outcry, the MIAA posted an explanation of its decision on its website Friday and affirmed that it wouldn’t formally sanction any sectionals. The release said several options were considered, including moving the sectional and state meets back one week each, but nothing could ensure fairness to all parts of the state.

Said Cole, who wrote a letter to the MIAA and the National Federation of State High School Associations, “I’m still more surprised that the meet was cancelled in the first place than that we brought it back to life. Clearly the number of people who reached out in support had an effect.”

The meet’s original host, Springfield College, had its pool available Sunday in case of a postponement, but in its Friday statement the MIAA said too many unknown factors pertaining to the snowstorm made that option impossible.

Hirtle gave much of the credit to athletic directors Mike Roy of Minnechaug, Jim Blain of Chicopee and Karen Gomez of Westfield for their efforts since Thursday’s cancellation announcement. Roy took on the role of tournament director.

“It’s been a roller-coaster ride for everyone, but it’s great the adults could pull something together,” he said. “The kids are very excited, but I think they’re relieved more than anything. This is about the kids being rewarded for all their hard work this season. It isn’t ideal but it’s the best we probably could have hoped for. This event is the capstone to many of these kids’ seasons, so to not have it at all was not acceptable.”

Michael Wilkinson can be reached at mwilkinson@gazettenet.com. Follow him on Twitter @mjwilk1237.

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