Coach Donati making a splash at Mt. Lebanon

Published Jan 9, 2013 at 12:59 pm (Updated Jan 9, 2013 at 12:59 pm)

Call him crazy but Tom Donati endorses change. In fact, he says enthusiastically, “change is good.”

Months after he walked away from coaching Upper St. Clair through unchartered waters, Donati is enjoying new adventures at the helm of Mt. Lebanon’s aquatics program.

While his boys’ and girls’ teams are not on the winning dual meet pace the Panthers had been during Donati’s three seasons, which culminated in the school’s first WPIAL title for boys’ swimming in 2011 and a runner-up trophy in 2012, they are on pace to set new standards in the district and beyond.

“I had a great run at USC. The program is in a good place. We achieved great things and it was an awesome experience. I worked with good people and I have great admiration for them. But, I had to do what was best for my family,” Donati explained of the move that put him closer to home and enabled him to coach his daughter, Sophia. “It’s been a great change for everybody involved, for both teams, for me especially. I’m in my own backyard. Five minutes to work. There’s a new pool coming.”

So, too, are there new horizons awaiting Lebo swimming. The school and the community gained a glimpse of where the compass points to a bright future when the Blue Devils battled Donati’s former charges. In a dual meet in which the Panthers won easily, the Blue Devils not only qualified 11 swimmers for the WPIAL championships set for Feb. 28 and March 1 at Pitt, they shattered several pool and school records. In some events, they even shocked the competition.

To start the meet, Lebo smashed the pool record in the medley relay even though they were edged by three-tenths of a second by the host Panthers, who swam a record 1:38.4.

While USC’s foursome included Alex Hardwick, Thomas Williams, Ryan Dudzinski and Nikki Narayanan, Lebo’s team included sophomore Andrei Mihaileseu, juniors Nik Victor and Alex Rice as well as senior Mike Yeckley.

“We woke up a sleeping giant,” said Donati of USC, which is expected to challenge North Allegheny for the WPIAL Class AAA boys’ team title along with Bethel Park and Peters Township.

“USC most likely will win the WPIAL title. They will battle North Allegheny. If they slip up, BP is right there and ready to step in as is Peters Township and I know people think I was crazy for leaving but it’s about winning in life. USC’s in a good place. Their boys and girls have been in the top for three years. They are still so talented.”

Indeed, in addition to keeping their own record in the medley relay, Hardwick coasted to victory in a record time of 46.39 in the 100-yard freestyle. Ryan Dudzinski smashed his brother Kyle’s record in the 100 backstroke, posting a 51.19 time. Plus, the 400 free unit of Hardwick, Patrick Lersch, Nate Novak and Dudzinski cruised to victory.

As good a night as it was for the Panthers, who won 60-42, it was a “great, great” evening for Lebo says Donati.

While his boys improved to 2-1 overall after beating Baldwin last Thursday and his girls are now 1-1-1, with the tie against South Fayette, the Blue Devils are setting new standards in the pool.

For example, the foursome of Katie Ford, Meghan Schilken, Veronica Bogdanski and Anna McGlade set records in the 200- as well as 400-yard freestyle relays. The 200 free smashed the USC pool record with a time of 1:38.51 while the 400 free went 3:38.06.

A junior, Ford shattered both the USC pool and Lebo school record with a 23.50 50-yard freestyle swim.

A Junior National qualifier, Ford also upset Brittany Dudzinski in the 100-yard backstroke. Dudzinski, coming off several recruiting visits to Duke, Notre Dame and Ohio before settling on Miami of Ohio, is the defending WPIAL champion in that race.

Meanwhile, Ford, who won the 50 free as a freshman, is determined to take back her crown. She finished third in last year’s WPIAL championships, .15 off the winning pace set by then sophomore Alyssa Ruffing from Franklin Regional.

“Katie’s goal is to get back on top of the podium,” Donati said.

“She’s on board with what we are doing,” he continued. “She’s riding a wave (having made her first Junior National cut) and she’s enjoying it. Change has been good for her.”

Donati hopes to change Ford’s thinking, too. She doesn’t just have to be a 50 freestyler. Donati believes Ford can do anything she wants. For example, she enjoyed success in the 200 backstroke during the AMS Christmas Meet at Pitt. She also swam a 2:11 in the 200 IM at USC. “If pushed, she could do a 2:08,” Donati said.

“With Katie,” Donati continued, “we don’t want to put emphasis on that race (50 free) because so much can go wrong. It’s down and back and one slip is a recipe for disaster.”

According to Donati, Ford has been “receptive” to change. When he met with his swimmers after the holidays, Donati ripped up Ford’s goal sheets because she had already reached her objectives.

“With Katie, we have to re-establish goals. She’s already where she wanted to be right now,” Donati said. “Katie will keep working. She’s the first in the pool and the last to exit. She sets a great example.”

So does Schilken. A junior as well, Schilken specializes in the backstroke. She finished runner-up to Dudzinski in last year’s WPIAL championships. She also placed 11th in the 50 free.

Donati would also like to break Schilken of the 50 mindset as he sees plenty of potential in her for longer distance swims.

A strong swimmer, Schilken has toned up thanks to Cari Reseler. The Mt. Lebanon resident instructs swimmers in their dryland training through the use of both yoga and pilates.

“Meghan is a great kid but more of a vocal leader than Katie. They both lead by example though,” said Donati, “and to me, whether you have the title of captain or not, a true leader does it every day and they do all you ask of them.”

Schilken made a move to improve her swimming this fall and she wasn’t even asked to do so. A standout volleyball player, she did not compete this season, focusing instead on her swimming. Mt. Lebanon won the WPIAL Class AAA girls’ volleyball title this fall.

“What a leader,” Donati said of Schilken. “No matter what she does. She gave up a lot. She missed out of the memory of winning a WPIAL championship.

“We talk about regret and I don’t want any of them to regret anything in life and wonder what if. I did not ask Meghan to quit. When she did it blindsided me. This was something she wanted to do and her parents were very supportive. She comes from a great family and she’s very dedicated.”

Dedication will enable the Ford and Schilken to achieve their current and long-term goals. Donati expects “huge things” from them in two years as they will “keep improving.” “WPIALs, states, sectionals, nationals,” he said. “The whole gamut.”

Strides are being made by newcomers to the program such as Andre Mihaileseu and Noah Wechter. The sophomore won the 200 and 500 free races at USC. Nik Victor and Alex Rice are adding to the club as is Jackson Kish and Brian Ramsey. All have already met the qualifying standards for the WPIAL championships.

Additionally, on the girls’ side, Megan Doody, Alison Shapiro and Tamara Racic are also WPIAL qualifiers.

“All our hard work is paying off,” said Donati, who brought with him from his USC coaching staff his long-time friend Kevin McLaughlin as well as Amanda Smith, who won a state title while swimming for Donati at Seneca Valley.

“We needed this because here you are, coming in new, and your swimmers are wondering if what we are doing is right. They are used to the old way. They underestimate. They’re unbelieving. But they have bought into what we are doing and it’s showing in their swimming. Better times are ahead.”

As are better facilities. After meets at Peters Township on Jan. 10 and against Bethel Park at Lebo on Jan. 17, the Blue Devils will swim their final meet in their antiquated pool, which features five lanes and a depth of only five feet, against Canon-McMillan on Jan. 31. A state-of-the art, eight-lane natatorium is expected to open in August on the Mt. Lebanon campus.

“It’s going to be exciting,” Donati said. “We are in a good place right now and it’s only going to get better.”

Indeed times are changing at Mt. Lebanon under Donati and those alterations are surely good.

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