Anthony “AJ” Mercincavage knows what it takes to win in the pool. As a student at Cherry Hill West High School in New Jersey, he swam in two public school state championship meets and helped lead his team to the state title his senior season.
He also knows that in the pool, winning sometimes has nothing to do with titles, and that’s a philosophy he stressed as he sets goals for his swimmers and the team during his first season at the helm of the Newark High girls swim team.
“Goal setting is easy, since swimming is straight forward: It’s you versus the clock,” he explained. “Did my swimmers get faster? Did they grow as people by being a part of this team? There are so many ways to make sure kids are getting something out of my coaching other than if we walk away with a state championship.”
Mercincavage is the third girls coach in four years, but feels the girls have adapted quickly to the change.
“The girls have been really accepting and I don’t think there has been any negative impact at all,” he said. “The last girls coach (Zoe Coffing) was here for two years and the current boys coach (Brett Melcher) has been at Newark for three years, so there has been some consistency for the kids.”
It was his experience as a student-athlete in high school that inspired Mercincavage to take on the role of head coach.
“High school sports is all about building community for students,” Mercincavage explained. “If you coach, you get to help create that community. I had great coaches and mentors during my high school experience. The culture they set and the community they helped foster were so very important to me as a teenager. When I coach, I hope to provide the same for a new group of kids. I’m very proud to be able to do that at Newark.”
Like every new coach, Mercincavage has made a few changes since taking over.
“My biggest thing has been trying to curb anxiety before races,” he pointed out. “I want my swimmers to recognize how hard they’ve been working and enjoy it.”
He’s also faced some challenges.
“The biggest challenge was getting to know the individual swimmers,” Mercincavage said. “But when you stay consistent, kids learn what you are about and you can build relationships with them.”
He’s also been pleased with how his swimmers have built relationships with each other.
“I will never get tired of seeing swimmers, without any prompting, cheer on their teammates,” he said. “Learning how to be a teammate is one of the best lessons in sports, and I get to see it in action with the Newark swimmers at every meet.”
The team’s 3-7 record is consistent with the previous few seasons, and Mercincavage explained his theory for the team’s struggle to get over .500.
“The size of our roster can be limiting in terms of filling each event,” he noted of his 14 swimmers. “But it’s not all about winning. Learning how to lose the right way is a life lesson that goes beyond sports. That matters more to me than wins and losses.”
With the state meet looming at the end of the month, junior Elizabeth Walsh has already qualified in the 100 butterfly, and several other swimmers are on the cusp of earning a spot in the Feb. 27 preliminaries, according to Mercincavage. With four meets remaining, Mercincavage has his players focusing in on closing out the regular season on a positive note.
“I want my swimmers to hit their goal times after all their hard work,” he said. “I want the seniors to really enjoy this time while they have it.”