About seven months ago, Garet Weston planned on cutting back on his obligations to the Indiana High School swimming program.
The 24-year-old 2007 Indiana High graduate had recently accepted a full-time job locally, leaving him with less time to work his previous post as an assistant swimming coach, so he planned to instead run a weight-training program for the swimmers a couple mornings a week.
Sure, Weston is running the weight program now. He’s also doing a lot more than he or anyone else around Indiana swimming could have imagined even a few months ago.
He is filling the spot of his former coach, the one that helped guide him to become an All-American college swimmer at Clarion and provided invaluable assistance to hundreds of other students and swimmers over the years.
When Mark Hess died unexpectedly in early September at age 57, the Indiana community was left with a huge void. The swimming coach for 29 years, Hess had served in ways not measured by his 546 career wins.
Weston has stepped in to serve as head coach and lead the Indiana swimming community in carrying the torch passed on by Hess.
“The way I look at it is it’s always going to be his team, no matter what,” Weston said. “He devoted over 25 years to these kids and, no matter who becomes the coach down the road, I see that it’s his team. I’ve just been placed to keep it going, because obviously no one’s going to fill his shoes, the way he was and the man he was. I don’t think there’s another human being out there, the way he treated these kids and helped these kids. We always talk about how he has a family of 500 kids because of all the ones he coached.”
Indiana honored Hess and his family — his wife, four sons, mother and sister — at its first meet of the season Monday evening at IUP’s Memorial Field House, presenting them with a scrapbook filled with messages written by Indiana students.
“The kids have handled things well,” Weston said, “especially tonight, a little bit of emotions going on, and they handled that perfectly and actually used it to their benefit.”
In a WPIAL non-section meet, Indiana beat Butler, 95-88, in the girls’ meet and lost, 105-81, on the boys’ side. The loss was the boys’ first in a dual meet since at least 2007.
That streak was a testament to how much success Hess brought to the program.
“They could’ve gone the other way and completely wrote everything off, but they actually are using it as a motivation this year, doing something for him,” Weston said. “That’s my one big note to them: Remember who this is about and who we’re swimming for this year. I give all the credit to the kids for stepping up the way they have, especially his family and everything. I couldn’t ask for any better acceptance in terms of support or anything from his family, which, in a time like this, I couldn’t imagine how hard that would be.”
In the pool, Indiana has four swimmers each on the boys’ and girls’ sides who qualified for the state meet last year. The Indiana boys are the three-time defending WPIAL Class AA champions, and the girls, third-place finishers in the district last year, have the tools to contend for a title this time around.
“The girls’ side is a little bit deeper in numbers,” Weston said, “but the talent’s there on both sides.”
Earning first-place finishes for the girls on Monday were Sophie Manges (200 freestyle, 100 butterfly), Anna Paccapaniccia (50 freestyle, 100 breaststroke), Gabby Bobak (200 individual medley) and Eliza O’Neal (100 freestyle). Indiana’s teams in the 200 medley relay (Anna Manges, Paccapaniccia, Sophie Manges and O’Neal) and 200 freestyle relay (Bobak, Sarah Henderson, O’Neal and Paccapaniccia) also took first.
In the boys’ meet, Grant Hess (200 individual medley) and Logan Hess (100 butterfly), both sons of Mark Hess, scored first-place finishes. Indiana also won the 400 freestyle relay behind Logan Hess, Frank Bevevino, Joe Churner and Ben Peng.
Sophie Manges, Anna Manges, Bobak, Paccapaniccia, O’Neal, Henderson, Grant Hess, Logan Hess, Wei-Wei Wu, Bevevino and Peng posted WPIAL qualifying times in various events and will participate in the championship meet. Indiana also qualified with three relay teams.
“Tonight was a big indication of how these kids are going to step up this year and take over for the assets that we’ve lost,” Weston said. “It’s going to take a lot of work and effort, but these kids are ready to do it. I wouldn’t even count the boys out. They might not have the numbers like we’ve had before, but with hard work, some of these boys can do some amazing things.
“Both girls and boys can do some amazing things by the end of the year. Both of these teams are going to do something special that some people might not see them doing outside of our program, but I have all the confidence in the world in these kids to produce when it matters.”
It’s a special group ready to do special things, once again.
“In terms of a team and an overall group of parents, kids, supporters, I’ve never been around a team that’s so close, even through all the changes that have happened over the last 20-some years,” Weston said. “I give the credit to (Mark Hess) for creating that type of atmosphere with the parents, because he was always very close with the parents. … That goes back to him for building this atmosphere, this team. I couldn’t ask for a better group of parents, boosters, swimmers, athletes, anything.”