Fourth in a series in which the Globe profiles a winter varsity high school team from Eastern Massachusetts.
It’s been a year of change for the St. John’s Prep swimming and diving team — one of the state’s preeminent aquatic programs.
In the 2019-20 season, there is a new coach, new stars, and a new chapter. But for the four-time defending Division 1 champion Eagles and first-year coach Jeff Fiore, the goal remains the same: winning.
Fiore’s tenure comes in the wake of a 22-year reign by coach Tony Padvaiskas, who directed the Eagles to 14 state titles and 17 Catholic Conference championships. Mitch Lockwood, the Globe’s 2019 Swimmer of the Year, is now swimming at Connecticut College. But the cupboard has been restocked as St. John’s prepares for the sectional and state meets.
“We graduated a couple of really great seniors last year,” Fiore said. “But we always just get a few more [guys] in the door to fill in the gaps.”
Lifelong friends Michael Ott and Palmer Randall have taken over as senior captains, pacing the Eagles to a 5-0 conference record. Juniors Andrew Coady and Kai Zola return from the state champion 200-yard medley relay team (1 minute 37.42 seconds), and classmate Will Connolly is back after swimming anchor for the winning 400 free relay squad (3:13.65).
Diving coach Brendon Graffum has a crew of young athletes, including Randall’s younger brother, Carter, a sophomore, and the Conway brothers, Aidan, a junior, and standout freshman Max.
The hope is Ott and Randall can finish with four straight state titles — and give their new head coach a trophy of his own.
“You can’t really compete with 3 for 3,” Ott said. “To bring Coach Fiore his first would be a great honor.”
Here are five things to know about the Eagles:
Fiore, a Peabody native, swam for the Eagles from 2004-08 under Padvaiskas. In that time, the Prep won three state titles, and the team was undefeated during his junior and senior seasons.
He went on to swim at the University of Tampa, a Division 2 school that consistently hovers at the top of the national rankings.
Fiore’s relationship with Padvaiskas dates to Fiore’s start as a young swimmer at North Shore Swim Club.
“Tony was a big reason I went to the Prep,” Fiore said. “They were just blossoming into a really high-quality program.”
The alumni culture is strong for the Eagles, evidenced by assistant coaches Tom Gately and Kevin Driscoll, both alums. Fiore was an assistant for one season before he was hired to take the helm.
“I already feel very comfortable there,” Fiore said.
“I have a very strong personal attachment.”
Gately and Driscoll also assisted Fiore last fall in his first season as the varsity water polo coach. All three played the sport at the Prep.
Fiore is the school’s aquatics director, meaning he oversees the operations of the pool, equipment rentals, and also teaches a few pool-based physical education courses.
Water polo is not governed by the MIAA, but the Eagles make up a schedule of New England prep schools, such as Phillips Andover, Phillips Exeter, and schools from the Founders League. Around 25 members of the swim team, including Ott and Randall, play water polo — partially as a tune-up for swimming.
“Water polo plays a huge role in the bonding for swimming,” Randall said. “It lays the groundwork for you to get to know [your teammates].”
Oh Captain, my Captain
Ott is a three-sport captain — a rarity at a school as competitive as the Prep.
In addition to the swimming and water polo teams, Ott also captains the lacrosse team, the sport he will focus on at Washington and Lee University next fall. Ott said that his multisport background helped build his athleticism and competitiveness.
He relishes in his role as captain, and is quick to allude to the upperclassmen that helped him gain confidence early in his career.
“There’s a sense of pressure to succeed and that’s one thing you get as a captain because you’re kind of in the spotlight,” Ott said.
Ott said that competing in relays — and winning them — has formed some of the best memories of his sports career.
Back in the day
Ott and Randall’s relationship extends beyond water polo and swimming at the Prep.
The pair began swimming together when they were 4 and 5 years old as part of the U-6 program at Bradford Swim Club. Coady also swam at the club growing up.
Ott recalls running around the deck with Randall at the Cedardale pool in Haverhill, showing off the ribbons and medals he won from his very first swimming races.
“That’s where I first competed in swimming,” Ott said.
The excitement was palpable when Ott (West Newbury) and Randall (North Andover) found out they were teaming up at the Prep. And it’s hard to argue with the results of this dynamic duo.
“Now that we’re both captains at the Prep, it’s unreal,” Randall said.
Sights on sectional
Despite all their success on the Division 1 state level, the Eagles haven’t enjoyed dominance in the North sectional the past few seasons. Defending Division 2 state champion Wayland has won back-to-back sectional crowns.
“Ending the drought would mean the world to me,” Randall said.
Added Ott, “As a team we’ve been working to get four kids in every event. I’d love to go 2 for 2 [sectionals, states] in the middle of February.”
Matt MacCormack can be reached at matthew.maccormack