NORTH CANTON  Last week, the Hoover Vikings finally got to hit the pool in an official capacity.

After a long preseason and scrutiny around the program, the season officially began with the McKinley Relays, the unofficial season kickoff for the Federal League as its teams came together once again with other area schools for their first meet of the year.

As the year begins, the Vikings are once again coached by Rick Morrison, who has served as either the head coach or an assistant coach for the program since 1970. Morrison has seen plenty of excitement from his swimmers and divers as the year begins and sees the McKinley Relays as a chance to put their hard work at the forefront.

"We have been training extremely hard and the kids need a place and a time to show off how hard they’ve worked," Morrison said. "I don’t know there is one single event or athlete that stands out above the rest, but as a team we’re looking forward to getting going."

Last season, the girls team won the Federal League title, going 13-0 overall and defeating arch rival Jackson to clinch the title. The boys team was nearly as good, going 12-1 and losing only to Jackson in the regular season. Both campaigns added another piece to the program’s strong tradition, one Morrison has seen plenty of during his time with the program.

With many swimmers from last year’s teams back, the veteran coach sees plenty about which the Vikings can be excited this winter.

"We’ve had a great run of tradition at Hoover, so we’re just there to take it to one more year and one more level," Morrison said.

He noted that on the boys’ side, senior Nate Mullens, who was the state championship last year in the 50 freestyle and has committed to swim for North Carolina State next season, returns and is among a strong group of seniors who have stepped in to lead the team.

On the girls’ side, the 200 medley relay team of Kate Lochridge, Annie Lochridge, Amanda Palutsis and Parker Timken was ranked as high as 10th nationally last season and according to Morrison, that group is eager to elevate its performance again this season.

After breaking two national records last year, the quartet has plenty of reasons to be confident that they can break more this season.

With all of those veterans on the roster with state meet experience in hand, it would seem tough for many new faces to break into the lineup, but Morrison pointed out that the team’s underclassmen are pushing for a chance to compete as well.

"Those folks (the returnees) are leading in practice, but what’s exciting is we have underclassmen who are just as excited and would love to get their chance," Morrison said. "We race every day and the younger kids are getting stronger and faster and the established kids are looking behind them and seeing these kids coming up, so that pushes them."

That internal competition is one of the reasons the Vikings have confidence that they can be just as good this season as they were a year ago, if not better. Seeing Mullens win a state championship, the girls relay team and others on the roster would love to capture their own spot at the top of the podium.

Now that the year is underway, the tedium of a long preseason can fade to the background and the race to return to C.T. Branin Natatorium - site of the McKinley Relays - at the end of the year for the state meet is officially underway.

Reach Andy at 330-580-8936
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