With every bit of verve and excitement one would expect of a middle-schooler, Israa Hadine applauded and cheered loudly from the pool deck throughout each meet. Swimmers would be greeted with kudos or words of encouragement, accompanied by a warm smile.
“She’s probably our most prominent figure on the deck during competition,” Poughkeepsie girls swimming coach Galen Franchek said of the eighth-grader, who already is assuming a leadership role. “From start to finish, she doesn’t mind. She wants to share her enthusiasm with everyone.”
Including the opponents.
It made little difference to Hadine what the score was at the time. If the Pioneers were trailing considerably, leading comfortably, or locked in a taut contest and desperate for every point, she was sure to show her appreciation for the efforts of each person involved in the meet.
Franchek said she always has encouraged her team to be good sports — respectful to everyone and even amiable in competition. Making a positive impression is especially important, the coach said, “when you’re the team that’s different and is sometimes looked at differently.”
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The Pioneers roster is made up mostly of minorities, many of them Hispanic and Black kids from the City of Poughkeepsie, some from immigrant families who, historically, weren’t into swimming. They often are an outlier on the local aquatic scene, and the team had struggled for several years.
“I always tell the girls the importance of putting their best foot forward,” said Franchek, who has coached the team for nine years. “Sports aren’t just about competition. Ethics, team spirit, treating others well and showing love, those things matter.”
Those things seemingly permeated the team last season, aided by that affable eighth-grader.
The Pioneers, during an athletic banquet last week, were informed by Poughkeepsie High School athletic director Peter Bianco that they were the recipients of a Section 1 sportsmanship award.
“They’re elated and I’m excited for them,” Franchek said of her swimmers. At the suggestion of another coach, she submitted an essay about her team to the section last winter and they were chosen by a panel. “The girls didn’t even know about the award. They just did what’s normal for us, and what comes natural to them.”
It probably helped, too, that Poughkeepsie ascended last fall and had a breakthrough season, which raised their profile. The Pioneers went 6-1 and took second in the League 4 championship tournament. That campaign, the coach said, was easily their best in more than a decade.
“We’ve had some stability and consistency, steadily growing the program and building interest in the sport in the community,” Franchek said. “It’s taken time, but our (participation) numbers have gotten so much better, and there’s a lot of talent in the city.”
Her city-based club program, Mid-Hudson Aquatics, also helps serve as a feeder system for the varsity squad. Their roster of 24 is considerable, especially as several area teams have struggled to regain depth since the pandemic.
As encouraging for them is the fact that more than half the team, including key performers, are underclassmen. That bodes well for the future of the program.
Eighth-grader Renata Martinez is a standout sprinter and she won the 100-yard freestyle at the conference tournament. Hadine and seventh-grader Beverly Ruiz “have tremendous upside,” Franchek said.
The group was led by Julia Quezada, a senior who had been on the varsity team for five years. She swam just about every event, filling in wherever there was a need, and placed third in the 50 freestyle and fourth in the 500 free at the conference tournament.
Ashley Ojeda, Ruiz, Martinez and Quezada formed the 200 freestyle relay team that took second.
“It’s important to us to break down barriers and show that Black and Latino kids can be good in this sport, and for us to be welcoming and accepting of everyone,” Franchek said. “We’ve always put an emphasis on being classy and ethical, and now that we’re more competitive, it’s become more noticeable.”
Stephen Haynes: email@example.com; 845-437-4826; Twitter: @StephenHaynes4