When the University of North Florida announced the closure of its campus pool, then home to the Osprey’s Womens’ Swimming team, at the end of the 2013-2014 season and long-time Osprey’s coach Beth Harrell left the program she founded, the future of the program seemed grim. With a relatively low athlete retention rate and the prospects of losing their home pool, the program, already cut and reinstated once by the University, teetered on the brink of extinction.
Enter Ian Coffey, the head Coach at Radford University until that school’s administration decided to cut womens’ swimming at the end of the 2013-2014 season. Prior to the pool closure, the Ospreys had finished 4th or 5th in the Coastal Collegiate Swimming Association, a conference that includes teams from schools that include Florida Gulf Coast, Liberty, Georgia Southern, Campbell, and UNC-Asheville, and Gardner-Webb. The team faded to 8th in 2014, and in 2015, Coffey’s first season, remained 8th – albeit with a significant increase in points scored over the previous year.
“We finished eighth in the conference last year. Although we scored more points than the year before, we didn’t move up,” Coffey acknowledged. “This year, our goals are simple: top grade point average in the school, outscore last year’s point total at the conference meet, and move up in the standings.”
Coffey, having successfully navigated his first year as Head Coach with a team absorbing unusual changes, believes that the team culture and attitude will lead to a climb up the CCSA ranks. “The biggest difference in the team from this year to last year is, there are a lot of new faces AND returners who are on the same page,” explained Coffey. “. They understand what the expectations are from not only myself, but the athletic department, and want to excel in the classroom and the pool. They know how the system works – we are not learning as we go as we did last season.”
The Ospreys, who hope the administration will ultimately build an on-campus facility, have found a comfortable home at the Episcopal School of Jacksonville’s Semmes Aquatic Center, which features a 50m x 25y facility and is an easy 15 minute drive from campus. “We have no problems (not having an on campus pool),” asserted Coffey. “Sure it would be great to have our own pool, but Episcopal has been great with accommodating us… We take vans to practice, and it’s only 15 minutes to get to the pool. The team really likes being outside all year.”
As Coffey enters the heart of his second season at the helm of the Osprey program, he appreciates the evolving atmosphere and attitude on his team. “We have a culture here where this is a team, not a group of individuals,” Coffey noted with pride. “Everyone on the team cares for each other and they are very supportive. Our atmosphere is very positive. We have fun, but when we get down to training and meets, we go to work.”
This unity of purpose arose thanks to Coffey’s quick effort to establish rules and a code of conduct for the team when he took over the program. “I don’t want a lot of turnover. I want young ladies to come here, swim all four years, earn their degree, and have a good experience,” he said emphatically. “It all starts with me setting the bar for what I want the culture to be. I want our athletes to be proud to be a part of UNF swimming.”
Coffey points to his institution of a training trip (last year to Fort Meyers, and this year to Key West) as a key component to team bonding and preparation for the second half of the season and the run up to CCSA championships.
Unlike many schools who are just commencing their dual meet season, UNF has already swum against five competitors, and face conference foe UNC-Asheville next on their schedule. “That is a very evenly matched meet and I am really looking forward to (it),” Coffey indicated. “We have a good core of athletes coming back. Amy Taylor is going to be leaned on a lot during the year for her versatility. Others like Janie Kennedy and Angel Morrison will be providing depth in a lot of areas as well. Our newcomers – we have twelve this season – each one brings something to our team to make us better. The conference championship is still the biggest meet of the year for us, and I can’t wait.”
Sara DiPaolo is a former competitive swimmer/water polo player and high school swim coach, a current competitive age-group triathlete, and a parent of one high school swimmer and one she just shoved out of the boat to swim in college. You can reach her at Sara@FloridaSwimNetwork.com.