Rigorous routine sends Cats soaring

Carolyn Van Houten/The Herald
Jasper senior Cole Erny, center, received high-fives prior to the 400-yard freestyle relay at last weekend’s sectional. The Wildcats won that race and 11 of 12 events in all, qualifying a batch of swimmers for the state finals that begin with tonight’s preliminaries and wrap up Saturday in Indianapolis. Jasper traces much of the success to an exhausting training regimen that’s now yielding dividends.

Herald Sports Writer

As the post-sectional jubilation carried on, Jasper swim coach Jenae Gill found Matt Head and asked the swimmer for a little confirmation.

“Training pays off, doesn’t it?” Gill inquired.

“Absolutely,” the reserved freshman submitted.


Head had just cranked out the third leg of the 400-yard freestyle relay for the Wildcats, fastening their first relay sweep in sectional history — icing on the cake of Jasper’s first sectional title in seven years.

See, Gill kinda expected Head’s answer. In truth, the second-year coach knew from the beginning of the season that the training would pay off for Head. For all her swimmers, actually.

The team had a crop of polished seniors and a nice medley of underclassmen. So Gill took what she’d learned through classes, videos on training innovations and conversations with college coaches during the offseason, and she sat down with assistant coach Kristin Gutgsell to devise a new regimen specific for this year’s bunch.

“I knew we had to take the kids to the next level,” said Gill, whose team qualified to compete in 10 events at today’s state finals swim preliminaries as well as in Saturday morning’s diving prelims at the IUPUI Natatorium. “We had to ramp up the training.”

So they did.


Last season, divers could attend dry-land morning workouts if they so chose. This year, they were ordered to be at every one. Last year, the team had one or two Saturday practices. This year, Saturdays became the norm. And while the morning dry-land workouts (Mondays and Wednesdays) and swim practices (Tuesdays and Thursdays), the daily 21⁄2-hour after-school practices and three-hour weekend sessions weren’t necessarily longer than in the past — though sometimes they were — each minute spent training packed more punch.

It wasn’t something decided democratically, it was just understood. And the boys abided.

“She had mentioned (the training spike) to us,” Wildcat senior Jackson Beckman said, “but we knew that we needed to push ourselves and for her to push us.”

Leg lifts, squats, flutter kicks, planks and a dozen 200-meter sprints in the high school’s auxiliary gym, plus components of Insanity and P90X workouts that Gill saw fitting for a swimmer. After a half hour of that, the team descended to the weight room for more circuit training that focused on strengthening fast-twitch muscles.


On top of the 25 hours they’d spend each week training with teammates, some Wildcats pushed further. Senior Cole Erny hammered through Insanity workouts on his own after practices, too. Classmate Alec Vennekotter ventured to Evansville twice a week for workouts with the Marine Corps, which he’ll enter upon high school graduation.

And when the team had a respite in its meet schedule during the holiday break, conditioning only grew tougher. Like, 10,000-yards-each-practice tougher.

“Christmas practices have always been known to be hard,” Vennekotter said.

“But nothing to this extent,” Beckman finished.

This year, the holiday sessions went three hours instead of two, often completed without any sort of stoppage. And throughout a 19-day stretch spanning December and January when the Cats competed in just one meet, the practices were perhaps the most grueling all season.

“The worst practices,” Vennekotter said.

Like the “Twelve Days Of Christmas” drill. A 13,000-yard ladder swim (7.4 miles) that starts with one stroke at one distance, like a 500 free. Once that step is complete, a swimmer repeats the first rung and adds on a second component, and so on. The 12 steps took the boys about two hours altogether.

By the end of the workout, “I just feel like a zombie,” Vennekotter said.

Once meets recommenced with regularity in mid-January, things didn’t slow down much. With school cancellations from snow and plummeting temperatures hampering the team’s chances to train, Gill made up for lost time. One Tuesday in mid-January, she had the boys in the pool for practice in the morning and the afternoon. That evening, they headed to Boonville for a meet.

What worried Gill, if anything, was her swimmers doubting whether the amped-up conditioning would all be worth it. But as she expected, the Big Eight Conference meet provided the answer — a one-point win over Mount Vernon, which had won 24 of the 28 conference meets all-time.

For many, the joy came from the margin of victory and the caliber of the opponent. Erny felt the validation was far simpler.

“Just winning,” Erny said. “It doesn’t matter by what point it was, it was just that we won.”

 “I knew that was going to be the light bulb going off for those boys was winning that meet,” Gill said. “But I knew going into this season what we were capable of. That first meeting, I sat them upstairs and I told them exactly, ”˜You can win sectional this year. You can do it.’

“We knew the group of boys we had ... we knew how much better they would be with getting consistent training. So I knew it all year long, but I knew that that Mount Vernon meet would be the time that they would realize what they were capable of.”

The training kept coming, and so did the success. Four weeks after securing the Big Eight crown, Jasper captured its first sectional championship since 2007, evoking Head’s testimony that it had all been worthwhile.

“Sometimes it’s hard to see that light at the end of the tunnel, but that’s why I was hoping to have such a great sectional meet,” Gill said. “To prove to them that, ”˜OK, hey, it’s all worth it in the end.’”

Contact Joe Jasinski

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