The tears flowed for members of the Horseheads girls swimming and diving team when they found out this summer that Brendan McCarthy, a teacher and former coach, had been diagnosed with Lou Gehrig’s Disease.
The tears returned Saturday afternoon at Owego Free Academy when the Blue Raiders won the Section 4 Class A championship as McCarthy watched, ending Ithaca’s run of 23 consecutive sectional titles.
“For him to make it and witness this along with us, it meant a lot to the girls,” Horseheads coach Mark Miles said. “They saw he was here and they kept saying to me, ‘Coach McCarthy’s here, Coach McCarthy’s here.’ They really wanted to finish it for him, too.”
Horseheads dedicated the season to McCarthy after finding out he has Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis, a progressive disease widely known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease that affects nerve cells in the brain and spinal cord.
McCarthy, of Elmira, is a special education teacher at Horseheads High School and a former coach with the Horseheads Thrashers swim club who was a teammate of Miles at Horseheads and Cortland State. They remain close friends and shared a a long, tearful embrace moments after the team assembled atop the medal stand to celebrate.
McCarthy, whose speech is impaired from the disease, broke down again as he talked about the team’s accomplishment.
“Coach Miles is a great friend of mine and he is an amazing coach,” McCarthy said. “To motivate those girls to do what they did today is spectacular.”
Ithaca finished first in 10 of the 12 events, but the Raiders’ superior depth was the difference. Horseheads finished with 541 points and Ithaca had 502, with Vestal a distant third in the eight-team meet with 285.
“Coming in we knew we were a little deeper,” Miles said. “We’ve been talking all along about how we know they’re very fast up front and we can’t really match that, but we know we’re four girls deep in every event and that’s really what carried us through.”
The last team other than Ithaca to win the top class in Section 4 was Horseheads in 1989.
“We have that banner and that’s been staring us in the face for 23 years,” said Miles, a 1994 Horseheads graduate who is in his fourth season as coach.
Horseheads junior Mary Edwards won the 200-yard individual medley (2:09.86) and finished second in the 100 butterfly (58.34). She will compete in both events at the New York State Public High School Athletic Association championships Nov. 22 and 23 at Ithaca College.
“We knew it was going to be a dogfight the entire meet,” Edwards said. “We just pushed through. We were all ready. We’ve been training for this since day one. It was our top goal for the season and I’m just so proud that we achieved it.”
Edwards swam in Ithaca at the club level and knows Little Red head coach Roy Staley and several of the girls on the team well. She said her pride extended to Ithaca’s performance as well.
From an individual standpoint, she described her day as “a roller coaster.”
“I won an event, I was happy. I got outouched, I was upset,” she said. “Then we just came down and pulled through.”
Hannah Bollinger (100 backstroke and 100 butterfly) and Indie Stratton (200 freestyle, 100 freestyle) won two individual events each for Ithaca. Other winners for the Little Red were Cecile Browning (50 freestyle), Annika Browning (500 freestyle), Ayla Bonniwell (diving) and Annika Browning (100 freestyle). Ithaca also won all three relays.
“Roy is an absolutely phenomenal coach,” Miles said. “I have nothing but the utmost respect for him. He’s all about the sport and he’s done nothing but share ideas with me. We’ve trained with each other and spent a lot of time at meets together. It’s a huge honor for us to beat a team of that caliber.”
The other Class A champion was Union-Endicott’s Nicole Petta in the 100 breaststroke. Every winning time or score in the meet topped the state standard with the exception of the 500 freestyle.
Elmira Notre Dame sophomore Frances VanderMeer finished second in the 50 freestyle and the 100 backstroke. She will compete in both events at states, with her prelim time of 1:00.42 in the backstroke Wednesday at Elmira Free Academy matching the state standard.
This is the first year of swimming for Notre Dame, which trained alongside the Elmira Express.
“It’s been really great and I’ve become really close with the other girls on my team and the girls on the Elmira team,” VanderMeer said. “We’ve had some really great coaches and great competitors.
“Today I was pretty happy with how I did. Notre Dame did really well; Elmira did really well.”
Lansing won seven of 12 events and took the title with 453 points, followed by Dryden with 357 and Watkins Glen with 311. Lansing junior Adele Ferris won the 200 individual medley and 500 freestyle, topping the state standard in both events.
Chenango Forks freshman Sam Suer was faster than the state cutoff in winning the 200 freestyle and the 100 butterfly.
Watkins Glen eighth-grader Alexis Castelleneta won the 1-meter diving with a score of 348.60.