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LEONARD ORTIZ, STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER
The Tesoro girls swimming team, which should be one of Orange County's top squads this season, is led by (top row, from left), Ashley Joe, Casey Brotherton, Victoria Epps and Jessica Epps and (bottom row, from left) Jami Hwang, Rhys Empey, Emily Baker and Dominique Gray.

Swimming preview: Tesoro girls look to build on success

STAFF WRITER

Tesoro’s ascent in CIF-SS Division 1 girls swimming has been hard to miss the past four seasons.

The Titans climbed from a 27th-place finish in 2012 to third place last spring.

There are easily spotted reasons for their success, but also a below-the-surface current of unity pushing the program to the forefront of preseason expectations.

One of the main ways third-ranked Tesoro builds strong team chemistry is having its experienced club standouts regularly mentor younger swimmers in the finer points such as flip-turns or touches at the wall.

“We’ve build a community around that,” said Todd Conrad, the Titans’ fourth-year girls coach.

“For me at least, you have to make sure the experience is there. You can’t put half of your heart into something and expect great results.

“This program has kind of had that history of up-and-down, up-and-down.”

GIRLS PREVIEW

The vibe on the pool deck has changed under Conrad, 34, who swam at UC Irvine and has coached at Santa Margarita and the Aquazot club.

Distance swimmer Rhys Empey, who trains year-round with the Coto Coyotes club, has enjoyed mentoring some of her teammates.

“It’s good to be on the other side of it,” the junior said during a break from coaching.

“I wouldn’t have met these girls had I not come today, so it’s cool to see them around school and get to know them better and have them get excited about swimming.”

Conrad has experience building successful teams. He has been the coach of the Coto Coyotes club for 12 years; the program started with only six swimmers. Future high school standouts Brandon Boval (Tesoro) and Jack DesCombes (Capistrano Valley) were among the tiny group.

The club has grown to 100 swimmers, who train in a six-lane, 25-yard gutterless pool.

The Titans’ spacious pool is 30 meters and overflowing with talent. The program that once counted 40 girls has grown to 76.

These are some of the highly visible reasons behind Tesoro’s rise.

The two-time defending South Coast League champion returns six swimmers who scored individual points at the Division 1 finals last season and two more who raced on highly placed relays at CIF.

Tesoro returns its entire Division 1 runner-up 200-yard freestyle relay of Dominique Gray, Jami Hwang and sisters Victoria and Jessica Epps. The team clocked a time of 1 minute, 36.86 seconds.

UC San Diego-bound Casey Brotherton, Ashley Joe, Emily Baker and Empey also are CIF-savvy racers. Mandy Barnes (Boise State) was the swim team’s only major graduate last year.

Jessica Epps is a rising sophomore from the Mission Viejo Nadadores and among several county swimmers who have qualified for the U.S. Olympic Trials this summer.

“Her attitude and dedication are unmatched,” said Conrad, who compares Jessica Epps’ humble approach to teammates to the one exhibited by Santa Margarita’s Grant Shoults. “She is there is help any athlete.”

While South County neighbor Santa Margarita and Crean Lutheran are the defending CIF Division 1 and Division 2 champions, respectively, Tesoro figures to be a top-five contender again in May.

The Titans finished 13th in Division 1 in 2013, Conrad’s first season, and rose to 10th the following year.

“For us, that progression has come from the experience,” Conrad said. “For me, my true work isn’t at the varsity level. It’s at the JV and open levels. … I’m here for the program.”

COMINGS AND GOINGS

Foothill coach Tom DeLong traded his assistant duties for the Knights’ lead girls coaching position. ..

Sisters Ayla and Zoe Spitz are impact freshmen at Newport Harbor and members of the Irvine Novaquatics. Ayla blazed a 23.69 in the 50 free at a recent club meet. …

All-County freestyler Aidan Pastel of San Clemente moved to Virginia, Tritons coach Thomas Dollar confirmed. The senior is headed to Georgia Tech. ...

Dana Hills’ defending CIF Division 1 diving champion Jake Greenberg and butterfly standout Michael Smith will miss the season with injuries, Dolphins coach Matt Rosa said. …

Crean Lutheran junior breaststroker Jimena Martinez is a transfer from Canada, Saints coach Craig Brown said. …

The second CIF State meet is May 20-21 in Clovis.

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BOYS PREVIEW

Contact the writer: dalbano@ocregister.com


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