By Justin Feil, Packet Media Group
Matt Sanders was in the shadows of older, more experienced swimmers on the Hillsborough High School boys swim team for two years.
Now the junior is one of the veterans for the Raiders, who are reloading after significant graduation losses.
“I definitely feel more responsibility now,” Sanders said. “It makes me kind of nervous and it’s also exciting, too. It makes the experience more fun.”
The Raiders earned a 115-55 win over South Brunswick last Thursday to improve the Raiders’ record to 4-2.
“I think this season has gone really well so far,” Sanders said. “Although we did lose a lot of talent last year, a lot of new swimmers have stepped up. We’ve done a good job of working hard and swimming fast.”
The Raiders’ only losses have come against powers Pingry and Bridgewater-Raritan. Hillsborough will swim in the Skyland Conference Championships on Saturday, then face another solid squad, Montgomery, next week.
“We’re definitely still trying to do well in our conference,” Sanders said. “I think we’re going to show other teams we’re still a strong team at Skylands and counties. Although we lost a lot of people, I think we’re still a talented and fast team.”
Sanders helps. He is a talented and fast sprinter, and the Raiders use him in the sprints, as they have since he was a freshman.
“My role has pretty much stayed the same,” he said, “but I’ve been in more relays, which I love doing. I think Hillsborough has a few really strong relays.”
Sanders tends to swim in the 200 and 400 freestyle relays, where he expects to perform Saturday. The conference meet will be scored after a couple years without team ranks.
“I think we’re trying to have strong relays at this meet,” Sanders said. “And I think it’s going to be a pretty important meet for some new swimmers to get used to the high school meets and get experience and prepared for the championship meets. As a team, we’re going to try to prepare for the counties.”
The beginning portion of the season has helped the Raiders establish their strengths and figure out how they can best set up their lineup. They graduated plenty, including Sanders’ brother, Danny, who now swims for Franklin and Marshall College, from last year’s daunting lineup. Their graduation has meant more opportunity for other Raider swimmers.
“There are a lot of guys who have been on the team for a while, but this year the lineup has been shuffled around,” Sanders said. “Derek Kosydar, Evan Morgan, Karl Conrad, Alex Gonzalez and Cael O’Brien — they’re sophomores and juniors and they’ve taken larger roles on the team and contributed a lot more and that’s helped us perform better.”
Hillsborough has been piecing together who fits best where in its lineup. Even those tough losses to Pingry and Bridgewater helped them gauge how they’re doing in maximizing their talent.
“They’re both very fast and talented teams,” Sanders said. “I think those meets helped us to learn more about our lineup and how to fix our lineups to make them as strong as possible and to get more experience. There aren’t that many high school meets and so you learn how to do better next time from each one.”
Sanders is part of a solid junior class that has helped the seniors push the new contributors. Many of them are like Sanders in contributing for years.
“I feel like a lot of the juniors that I came up with that have been on the team since freshman year have developed more of a leadership role on the team,” Sanders said. “We’ll continue to pass those roles onto the underclassmen now and I think the team is looking to be very supportive and close now.”
It’s part of a tradition at Hillsborough. They have through the years relied on the older classes and more experienced swimmers to make the new teammates feel at home.
“One of the most important things about being on the high school team is creating a positive high school atmosphere where everyone feels comfortable and we all support everyone,” Sanders said. “Both the boys and girls, we’re always very supportive of everyone. I think that’s created a strong team atmosphere.”
That atmosphere is ideal for cultivating a strong team. Sanders saw it help him two years ago when he joined the Raiders and is helping to build chemistry this year. It’s continued to push him in the water.
“The team environment we have now, which is close and supportive, motivates me to swim faster and do better for my team,” Sanders said. “It makes it more of a team sport rather than an individual thing. It’d be easy to think of it as an individual thing. On the high school team, you feel a part of something bigger. I think I’ve been motivated by my team to do the best that I can.”
Sanders is also committed to the SVY club team, where he continues to explore new ways to go faster.
“I’ve been working pretty hard,” he said. “I recently tried to change my stroke up a little bit. I think it’s helped me in my sprint events.”
Sanders has lengthened his stroke in the last couple of months and has found solid results.
“This is something that my coaches suggested that I try,” he said. “Right in the middle of doing a longer stroke and a faster stroke is something I’m going for. There’s a spot in the middle where it’s probably the most efficient for me to do.
“At first, it’s something I really needed to be consciously minded about,” he added. “Now that been doing it for a while, I can tell on my own if I’m doing it.”
He isn’t alone. Across the board, the Raiders are working to improve their speed in hopes of contending for Skyland, Somerset County and sectional crowns.
“There are a lot of different people that are stepping up now,” Sanders said. “In the past, they haven’t needed to. We lost so many people, they’ve had to.”
By Justin Feil, Packet Media Group