Following a 6-1 season last year – in which the Cherry Hill West girls swim team went undefeated in the South Jersey Swimming League Caribbean Division – the Lions were promoted to the Mediterranean division of the SJSL this year.
Going in, coach Liz Begley knew the season would be a challenge.
The Mediterranean Division offers tougher competition than the Caribbean, with the likes of South Jersey swimming powerhouses Haddonfield and Cherry Hill East. Ultimately, the steep bump in competition proved to be a tough one; West didn’t win a single match in the new division, finishing the regular season at 4-5.
But what happened next showed South Jersey what West really is. After her team qualified for the NJSIAA South Jersey Group B Tournament as the No. 6 seed, Begley, a mathematics and computer science teacher at the school, got to work.
To prepare for the playoffs, the coach used her love of numbers to create a lineup that gave her squad the best chances to win, even though the numbers would ultimately lead to some unorthodox switches and changes for her lineup.
“I love numbers and I love math … so when we got ready for the playoffs, I got excited about the problem solving that goes into making a lineup and a meet sheet,” Begley said. “I think those analytical skills really helped me get the best out of my team throughout the playoffs to kind of think outside the box.
“Had we just went with the lineup that we used for the regular season and had our best swimmers in their best events, we would not have won as many playoff meets as we did,” the coach added.
Begley’s thinking paid huge dividends: After defeating No. 11 Toms River South in the first round, No. 6 seed West upset No. 3 Moorestown 86.5 to 83.5 in the quarterfinal round, before also beating No. 2 Clearview in a tiebreaker to make it to the bracket championship.
The first-round win over Toms River South netted the program its first playoff victory since the 2016-’17 season, when Begley was as an assistant coach. The finals appearance was the program’s first since the 2013-’14 season.
In all, the deep playoff run came with a spectacular end-of-season push by the Lions, who were able to come together and trust their coach’s calculated approach to their roster. The playoff efforts resulted in Begley being named the 2022 South Jersey Interscholastic Swimming Association’s Coach of the Year.
But despite the championship appearance, the coach award came as a surprise.
“It was not expected at all, but to be honest, it makes sense, because I wasn’t expecting our season to go the way that it did at all either,” Begley said. “It was a tough go for us during the regular season against some real elite swimmers, and we hadn’t won a playoff meet in over five years going in. So the fact that these girls were able to pull off what they did is amazing.”