Word spread that a culture change was in order inside the St. Francis de Sales Natatorium even before Tony Kurth conducted his first practice as the new coach.
Kurth has returned to his alma mater that helped launch his swimming career. He competed at the University of Michigan and coached at Cranbrook-Kingswood High School in Bloomfield Hills, Mich.
If the program was seen as having a country club atmosphere before, it’s changed with Kurth’s boot-camp aproach.
"We heard rumors from older swimmers about what he was like and how intense he was everywhere else," junior Nick Brodie said. "So, we kind of expected it, but he was even beyond that."
Kurth, a 1999 St. Francis graduate, didn't waste time sharing his coaching style and establishing that he was in charge, taking over for Keith Kennedy, who resigned to move to California.
Kurth's philosophy has called for the Knights to give out more effort than in recent years. Their training and preparation called for as much work outside of the pool as in the water.
He's a believer in swimmers preparing with weights and running on the track, sometimes up to six miles.
For most, Kurth's style has been an eye-opener.
"It's more intense this year," said Jack DiSalle, a junior, who was a member of the 400-yard freestyle relay team that placed second at state last season. "The workouts are really tough. He knows what he's doing. He's a great coach."
St. Francis has certainly known success in the pool through the years. The Knights have captured four state championships, the last one in 1998.
DiSalle is one of the top returners on a team that placed third at the Division I state meet last season behind champion Cincinnati St. Xavier and runner-up Upper Arlington. He believes the Knights are buying into and benefitting from Kurth's approach.
"We swim more than we did last year, and we're out of the pool [training] more than we did last year," DiSalle said. "Everyone has adjusted pretty well, but it's been a lot harder than what everyone would expect."
Kurth wasn't surprised by the team's initial reaction to his practice regimen and change to what it was accustomed to in the past.
"Every practice, every meet is a learning experience for the guys," Kurth said. "They're definitely making strides and leaps to get where they need to be. It's about believing in what you're doing, and what the coaches' philosophies are, and giving it what you've got."
Brodie is one of the top returners, a member of the 200 medley relay team that was runner-up at state last year with a time of 1 minute, 33.08 seconds. He's also one of the team’s fastest in the 50 free, with a personal-best time of 21.6 seconds set last season. His best this season has been 21.9.
"I think I'm fairly along this year compared to where I was at this time last year," Brodie said. "I'm going close to my best times right now and that normally doesn't happen."
St. Francis began this week with a 3-2 record in dual meets, losing only to defending state champion St. Xavier and Cleveland St. Ignatius.
Kurth entered the season not entirely concerned about winning every meet, particularly those during the first half of the schedule. Victories and finishing times now are not as important as they will be next month.
"My philosophy is to work hard and in the middle of the season get the training in that they need and be able to focus on the prize at the end — the state championship," said Kurth. The state meet will be Feb. 20-23.
With a team of more than 30 swimmers and divers, Kurth has plenty of depth to work with.
However, the Knights have lost one of their top returners, senior Connor Trimble, for the season. Trimble, who was a member of the 400 free relay that placed second at state, suffered a shoulder injury and is scheduled to have surgery later this month.
Trimble's loss will hurt, but it's next-man-up for a deep roster.
"From lane one to lane eight we have some talented kids," Kurth said.
Besides DiSalle, Brodie and Trimble, junior John Barone III has experience at the state meet as a member of the 200 medley relay team.
Sophomores Ben Gordon and Christian Sobczak have also shown early promise and give Kurth plenty to be optimistic about.
"It's good to be back at my alma mater and bring back some of the history that we had and the success we had when I was here," Kurth said. "That's my main job and main focus: To get these guys where I would like them as a team, and be able to perform as a team, and do things as the Knights would do."
Contact Donald Emmons at: firstname.lastname@example.org, 419-724-6302 or on Twitter @DemmonsBlade.