The Pitt-Bradford men's and women's swimming teams officially kick off the 2016-17 season Saturday by hosting the 11th annual Panther Relays at 1 p.m. in the Paul C. Duke III Aquatic Center.
The meet is the debut for new head coach Doug Alban, who takes the reigns of a program of that produced 12 all-conference swimmers a year ago. Alban spent the last five seasons as an assistant coach at the University of the South in Sewanee, Tenn., and takes over for long-time coach Ed Bahan, who passed away suddenly during the season last year.
The men's team finished runner-up at the Allegheny Mountain Collegiate Conference Championships last February, and the women were third, their best finish since the 2009-10 season. With the bulk of last year's contributors returning on both sides, the Panthers figure to be among the league's best again, and Alban has been encouraged by the early returns in practice.
"I have been very excited in our first few weeks of practice," Alban said. "The team has been very receptive to my style and the results in practice have exceeded my expectations to this point.
"They are all training together and motivating each other, especially during our early morning training sessions."
The women will be led by senior Elizabeth Prager, who looks to use her final season to further cement her legacy as the greatest women's swimmer in Panther history. She holds eight individual school records and is a member of all five relay records.
Jillian Wright will handle the breaststroke events, and Rebecca Avery is the team's butterfly stroke specialist. Both sophomores finished fourth in their respective events last year at the AMCC Championships. Junior Ann Confer returns as well and will be a key figure on the relay teams, and newcomer Jasmine Valentine will add depth.
The men's team will be led by the trio of Carey Behm, Lucas Cerchiaro and Corey Koss. Behm, a sophomore, is the reigning AMCC champion in the 1,650 freestyle and figures to be one of the top distance swimmers in the conference. Cerchiaro, another sophomore, will anchor the individual medley events. He was an all-conference selection last year in the 100-yard butterfly and 200-yard IM.
Koss, a junior, is the school record holder in the backstroke events and won the 100-yard back at the AMCC Championships last year. He will also be a central figure in the relay events.
Seniors Sean DeFazio, Zachery France and Nicholas Steiner are the elder statesman. France and Steiner were represented on the All-AMCC team a year ago, and DeFazio finished sixth in the 100-yard breaststroke.
Nicholas Boyd and Noah Frederick are among the team's top newcomers and part of a group that has impressed Alban during the preseason.
"There is a great group of new swimmers who are excited to learn," Alban said. "Day after day, I am constantly impressed by their work ethic."
This season also represents a first for the AMCC. In previous years, the conference meet was held in conjunction with the President's Athletic Conference in Grove City, Pa. However, this season the AMCC Championships will take place in Erie, Pa., and feature only league teams.
"This will be a great opportunity for not only Pitt-Bradford, but all AMCC teams to showcase their talents," Alban said. "I would love to see a majority of our team be named to the all-conference team, and also to have the team named an Academic All-America team."
Both teams have set goals for the season, and on Saturday the Panthers take aim at those aspirations. With training winding down, the work put in during the offseason will show up in the pool.
"Our sport is very special in which the amount of work you put in directly correlates to results as the clock is a very fair judge," Alban said. "My goal is to see each and every member of this team get faster and achieve personal best times."