Football players add to Lycoming swim team

Jerry Hammaker heard a knock on his office door and assumed it was one of his swimmers stopping by. Without looking up from what he was doing, the veteran Lycoming College swimming coach told whomever it was to come in.

He looked up and saw a mass of a man, one he didn’t know, filling his doorway and catching him quite off guard.

“My first thought was I hope he’s not here to hurt me,” Hammaker said.

The man standing in his doorway was there for quite the opposite reason. He wanted to join Lycoming’s swimming team. Hammaker gave him the usual runaround of questions he poses to students who are thinking about walking on to his team. Have you swum competitively? Do you know what stroke or event you’d like to swim? Any idea what your times might be?

The student sitting across from him said rather matter-of-factly that he had qualified for YMCA Nationals in two events while high school. Hammaker was sold.

“We did some research and he wasn’t lying. He was darn good in high school,” Hammaker said. “It was one of those things where I wanted to say, ‘Where have you been? We could have used you in the past.'”

The senior student had been a little preoccupied in his first three years on campus playing football. He had been a two-sport standout at Cardinal O’Hara High School and always considered joining the swimming team since he came to Lycoming to play football four years ago.

It was a decision that had served him well. Nate Oropollo played in 38 of the 40 games Lycoming played during his four years with the football team. And this past fall as a senior, he was a first-team all-conference defensive end.

But he didn’t want to leave Lycoming without giving swimming a shot. During football season, he would ask C.J. Arhontakis questions about the swimming team. Arhontakis is a defensive back who has also been on the swimming team in each of his three years at Lycoming.

The two have each had a stellar season and are a big part of the reason the Warriors are thinking they have the ability to come home from this weekend’s MAC Championships with the men’s team title, something that has never been done in school history.

“Ever since I got to Lyco I’ve heard rumors about football players who want to swim,” Hammaker said. “Not so much in this area, but in Philly, Lancaster and parts of New Jersey there’s a lot of guys who play football and swim.”

“Basically, I knew it was the last chance to competitively swim,” Oropollo said. “I said why not? I’m not doing anything right now anyway. I thought it was a good idea to get back in the pool and see if I could help the team out. I’m enjoying myself.”

Part of the reason he’s enjoying himself is the men’s swimming team is having one of its best seasons ever. Led by a key group of freshmen, Oropollo and Arhontakis have been the veteran anchors for a team that is poised for potentially its first top-two finish at the conference meet.

The Warriors pulled an upset earlier this year when it beat Misericordia, and their only loss came in the first dual meet of the season to Albright, the team considered to be the biggest threat to the Warriors’ hopes of a conference title.

“Albright has a lot of people and numbers. It’s always been hard for us to compete with them and the amount of people they put in (a meet),” Arhontakis said. “It’s always been a problem with depth for us. It was a big help with freshmen stepping up and getting MAC cuts right off the bat. It added to what we knew we already had.”

Oropollo has been one of the lynchpins to the team’s success this year. Even though he’s a first-year competitor on the team, Hammaker has noticed him taking on a leadership role for a team full of underclassmen, something Hammaker just says comes naturally with his personality.

And on top of that, he’s a good swimmer, too. Oropollo enters the MAC Championships seeded seventh in the 50 freestyle, his best event. His seed time of 22.20 is just .20 behind top seeded Matt Runtas, a Williamsport High School graduate, of Albright.

In fact, the Warriors have eight swimmers entered in the event, including Arhontakis, who is seeded 13th at 22.63. That depth in the 50 free has made Lycoming the favorite in the 200 freestyle relay. With so many options to use on the 200 freestyle relay, Hammaker spent the dual-meet season often splitting his best swimmers up to make two even teams and watching them compete against each other.

Hammaker said Wednesday night that he’s still not sure who he’s going to have in the relay when it comes time tonight, and it’s a good problem to have. That problem just speaks to how talented this team is.

Both Arhontakis and Oropollo spoke to how important tonight’s swim is going to be. With their strength in the sprints and tonight’s emphasis on sprints, it’s an opportunity for the Warriors to make their presence known in the meet and that they’re there to win it.

“It’s a big statement night for us,” Arhontakis said. “We’re seeded pretty well and we need to go out there and show them what we’re all about. We have a good shot at taking (the 200 free relay). It’s going to be a tough one, but we have a really good shot.”

“As a team we have a shot to win the whole thing,” Oropollo said. “If we can scare people (tonight) with some fast times, we have a chance to win it all.”

And Oropollo is confident he can win the 50 free, as well. Hammaker said the senior has really taken to the team aspect of swimming, maybe more so than some of his other swimmers have in the past.

Oropollo comes from a sport where there are 10 teammates on the field which have your back on every play. Swimming is an individualized sport built around a team concept, and Hammaker said Oropollo has bought into that team concept.

“He knows what he needs to do to carry the team,” Hammaker said. “It’s a motivating factor for him. If I do well and do better than expected, that’s a big thing. That’s something swimmers aren’t used to.

“It’s unbelievable how quickly he stepped into that leader role. I’m amazed at how he’s taken over. It’s going to be nice to have him on the pool deck this weekend.”