Last season, the Williamsville North girls swimming team wore "This one's for Doug" swim caps for coach Doug Cassidy. Parents and supporters threw a retirement party for Cassidy and gave him a school-colored green and gold recliner to relax in.
There's just one problem: Cassidy hasn't retired.
Cassidy did decide to retire after last season, his 20th leading the highly successful Spartans program, so he could spend more time with his family. But when the school offered to hire an assistant coach that would free up more of his time, Cassidy -- and his family -- decided he should un-retire.
"I sent out of a letter primarily to the folks that ran the retirement party saying, well, rumors of my retirement have been slightly exaggerated," Cassidy said sheepishly. "I explained the situation, and how having an additional coach would give me more flexibility with my time. The kids would come screaming down the hallways asking if I was going to be back, which is certainly nice.
"It was a little awkward coming back after I had made the decision about retiring. But being able to come back to work with the kids at North is a real joy. They're the finest kids around."
Art Aungst, coach of perennial power Orchard Park and a good friend of Cassidy, spoke at the retirement dinner. After he heard Cassidy was returning, he joked that he tried to have the ECIC bylaws amended so that once a coach retires, he couldn't un-retire.
"I was very upset that he was leaving," said Aungst. "His team and my team have had great rivalries. They are part of what has made us as good as we are, so it would be as much as a loss for us as it would be for Williamsville."
Cassidy said the decision to retire was a "gut-wrenching" one, but that he had "made his peace." Having to be at long practices had kept him away from wife Debbie and sons Michael (13 years old), Christopher (11), Jeremy (7) and Andrew (6).
When the school made two-year volunteer coach Flynn Burroughs a full-time assistant (joining six-year assistant and diving coach Alan Erenstoft), the Cassidy family thought it over.
"They've known what a fulfilling thing coaching has been for me, and they also realize that I was absolutely willing to say, 'No, forget about it,' " said Cassidy. "(The extra coach) has given me an opportunity to take some weekends off to take some extra time, and that has been the key."
Cassidy -- who now says he's taking his career "one year at a time" -- has 43 swimmers, the most ever. But he also has some significant holes to fill.
While many of the area's top swimmers are back for Section VI -- which won the state championship last year -- North is one of the few programs dealing with significant losses. The Spartans graduated four seniors who made the state team but also lost junior Laura Brodbeck -- a member of last year's sectional champion 200 free relay -- when her family moved to Chicago.
The captains are seniors Lindsay O'Halloran, Laura Joyce and Katie Ulin, and junior Patricia Connolly (part of last year's 200 free relay). Also back are sophomore Claire Brady and freshman Tracy Rathke.
OP's best team ever?
Aungst thought his best team ever was his 1999 squad, which won four state championships (50 free and the three relays) and set state records in the 200 and 400 free relays.
That was until Saturday's Western New York relays. This year's team broke two meet records (in the 400 medley and 400 individual medley relays) that had been set by the 1999 team. They broke the medley mark by three seconds and the IM standard by 10 seconds.
"The team I had in '99 I thought was the best ever, and I think this one can be best ever," said Aungst. "The '99 team won all three relays at the state meet, so breaking those records is an omen of good things to come. . . . We didn't think we'd be particularly fast this week but the times just sort of happened so it was sort of a double bonus."
Juniors Martha Whistler and Marie Wolbert were part of the 1999 state-record relays, and this year they are joined by junior Alaina Thiel and senior Stephanie Furlani. Whistler, Wolbert and Thiel were part of last year's state champion 200 medley relay.
Also returning from last year's state team are sophomore Alicia Kelly and seniors Sara Death and Kristin Hoffman.
"It's been way too easy for me," said Aungst. "The kids are the best group that has come along. It would be any coach's dream to work with a group like this."
Clarence makes it Big Three
While OP and North have long been the Section's major powers, Clarence looks like it will assert itself this season, perhaps as early as this afternoon.
The Red Devils take on Williamsville North today in a meet Cassidy admits he is "sort of dreading." A Clarence victory would be a historic one -- in Cassidy's 20 seasons, the only team able to beat North has been Orchard Park.
Clarence returns sectional champions senior Jenny Service (500 free) and junior Cristina Cesonis (100 breast), as well as fellow state team members senior Kristine Glauber and sophomore Nicole Slootsky.
Potent talent pool returns
Section VI looks like it will make a strong defense of its state title when the state meet is held at Erie Community College's Flickinger Center on Nov. 16-17. A remarkable 25 of the 35 swimmers from that team are back.
Three seniors each have two sectional titles to defend: Kenmore West's Allie Dean (200 IM, 100 fly); Sweet Home's Stephanie Belke (100 free, 100 back); and Amherst's Rachael Rubin (200 free, 500 free). East Aurora freshman Jamie McGowan is back after becoming the first eighth-grader ever to win a state championship (100 breaststroke).
Also returning: Cheektowaga teammates senior Sarah Hutnyan and junior Lindsey Fial; Frewsburg senior Melissa Ferraro; Frontier senior Ginger Miller; Olean senior Jenny Raimondi; Lockport sophomore Shana Dege; and West Seneca West sophomore Kelly Stoklosa.
Around the pool
The Section VI meet also will be held at the Flickinger Center on Nov. 8-10. . . . The ECIC meets are at Clarence on Oct. 25-27. . . . Smaller programs Franklinville and Ellicottville have combined to form a joint team this season, which will compete in Class B.