When walking into the Art Linklettler Natatorium the crisp January air changes. Instead of a cold breeze the air is heavy with the smell of chlorine. Walking on the pool deck one can see the reflection of lights and flags on the water. Looking down the 50-yard pool is the one-meter diving board and the stairs up to the three-meter board.
Atop of the board is freshman Connor Pennington or sophomore Valmore Stewart.
“They actually can jump higher than any diver we’ve ever had,” said head coach Peter Avdoulos.
Even though Stewart and Pennington have only been on the same team for a couple months they already have a friendly competition with one another.
“In practice we’ll be like ‘oh you can’t do this dive’ and then they’ll do it and we’ll be like ‘oh that was cute, do it again.’ It’s just like a friendly competition and that’s honestly how we get better,” said Stewart.
Avdoulos has noticed how Stewart and Pennington have a friendly competition with each other this season.
“Valmore was on the team last year and he has a lot of potential, but I think Connor showing up this year without question motivated Valmore and brought him to another level,” said Avdoulos. “They’re good for each other.”
Stewart and Pennington are two of Springfield’s top male divers now, but they started off in different places. Stewart was a gymnast, but he switched to diving his freshman year of high school. Pennington came from a family of swimmers. His older sister, Kellie Pennington was an All-American in the 50 freestyle,100 free, 200 free, 100 fly and 400 free relay while competing for the Pride from 2011 to 2014. Pennington started out as a swimmer, but in sixth grade after seeing the divers practice he realized he no longer wanted to swim and he picked up diving instead.
Stewart and Pennington are the two most experienced divers on the men’s side, but they are still both underclassmen. While trying to learn their own dives they are helping to train the other two divers, freshman George Colarullo and Brian Laukaitis. Colarullo is a freshman diver while Laukaitis is a sophomore.
“It’s [about] helping each other out, one person may know a better technique for a dive and just helping other people on the team and that everyone gets better,” said Pennington.
Both Stewart and Laukaitis joined the team their freshman year, but Stewart came in with experience from high school while Laukaitis was learning to dive for the first time.
“I feel like we helped each other in that he would help me with the little things that I would have to fix and that would help his diving as well,” said Laukaitis. “We’re always pushing each other, so even though we aren’t at the same skill level it always takes guts to try something for the first time, so for me it’s diving for the first time and for Valmore he has to try and put a front three-and-a-half from three meters.”
In his second year of diving Laukaitis has also had the chance to learn from Pennington, who was recently named the NEWMAC Diver of the Week and ECAC Division III North Men’s Diver of the Week.
“He has given me excellent tips on diving…he’s shown up with a humble head on his shoulders and it’s fun to pick on him for that a little bit because he really has a huge legacy that he’s about to leave on this school and he’s already shown it in some of his dives and some of his competitions,” said Laukaitis.
Having two experienced athletes has helped Avdoulos show Colarullo and Laukaitis some of the dives.
“It’s always great to be able to watch somebody else do it because you know what you are aspiring to,” said Avdoulos. “We can give verbal cues and verbally coach people all we want but some people need to see it.”
While training in Florida over winter break Stewart and Pennington were able to watch some of the best divers from all over the nation compete. Watching these divers had the same effect on them as they have on Laukaitis and Colarullo.
“We were down in Fort Lauderdale Florida and there were other teams there, There was Virginia Tech and University of Florida, and there some really good divers on those teams that have gone either Division I Nationals or even Olympic Trials, so that’s even another level where now both Connor and Valmore can look and say ‘that’s where I want to be,’” said Avdoulos
With only three meets left before the NEWMAC Championship at the end of February the diving team is training even harder.
“We had our focus set and after that Florida trip we felt very driven to finish the season with our best effort. The guys have had a great start but I think we are going to work a lot harder for the second half of it and finish strong,” said Laukaitis.
Even with such a young team Avdoulos is still confident in his divers at the championship meet. Colarullo and Pennington are both new to collegiate diving and last season Stewart was not able to compete at the end of the season due to injury. While working on a new dive the sophomore hyperextended his back and was out for the rest of the season. This season Stewart has come back even stronger and earned NEWMAC and ECAC Men’s Diver of the Week. In his first season Pennington has already earned NEWMAC Men’s Diver of the week three times and ECAC Men’s Diver of the Week twice.
“We’re on the right track,” said Avdoulos. “Our goal is to make it to the NCAA’s. We have the meet of the season coming up in the next month and a half and they’re looking really good.”