With the Class 3A state meet three days away, Palm Harbor University High School swim coach Lisa Bitting already is thinking in terms of points to be scored and titles to be taken.
Success at the state meet is determined mostly by individual effort, measured ruthlessly by the clock down to a thousandth of a second.
There are plenty of bay area swimmers who have succeeded in this endeavor, bringing home bundles of gold medals. State team titles are a bit more difficult to acquire.
Yet Bitting is the only coach in recent bay area history who knows what it is like to win one. And Thursday in Orlando, her boys team has a chance to do something no other bay area swim program has done in more than 50 years — become the first to win multiple state team titles since St. Petersburg High’s boys won six from 1924 to 1945.
Palm Harbor University, which won the Class 3A state boys title in 2008, is favored again this year. The Hurricanes are ahead by 42 points based on seeding times going into the meet.
State team titles are rare among public schools, particularly in this area. Since 1945, only three bay area programs have won: Clearwater’s boys in 1978, Seminole’s girls in 1985 and PHU’s boys in ’08. Bitting, 42, has been a part of two of them. She also was the captain on Seminole’s 1985 girls team.
“It’s pretty neat to be a part of so much local history in the sport,” Bitting said. “This is the time of year that is the most stressful for me. I’m thinking of what has to be done for us to have as much success as possible. I really want it more for the kids than for me.”
Becoming the area’s greatest swim coach was not Bitting’s ultimate goal. In fact, she didn’t know if she wanted to become one at all.
After graduating from Furman in 1990, Bitting applied to become the swim coach at Dixie Hollins to give her a better shot at securing a teaching job.
“I was just out of college and there were budget cuts back then,” Bitting said. “Schools were looking at teachers who were willing to accept additional responsibilities in extra-curricular activities, so I decided to become a swim coach. I had given some thought to coaching at the time, but it wasn’t on my short list of things to do at the time.”
Her first swim team at Dixie Hollins had just 20 swimmers (eight boys, 12 girls). Yet she managed to get the boys 200 medley relay and 400 free relay teams to state in 1990, the first time the school had ever had a state qualifier. Bitting was named the St. Petersburg Times’ boys coach of the year in both of her seasons with the Rebels.
“We didn’t have a lot of swimmers on her first team,” said Ken McKee, who was part of Dixie’s 200 medley relay in ’90. “The great thing about Coach Bitting was she was able to find the strengths of an individual swimmer and focus on those strokes.”
In 1992, Bitting moved on to St. Petersburg, where she led the Green Devil girls to a district title, and strong finishes at the state meet in girls and boys. She resigned in ’95 to pursue educational opportunities but jumped at the chance to start the swim program from scratch at Palm Harbor University, which opened in 1996.
Bitting’s first boys team had just five swimmers, all underclassmen. But her teams did not take long to become a force. In 1997, the Hurricanes’ won the conference title.
Now Bitting has so many swimmers that practice is conducted in two shifts, and swimmers have to obtain certain times in their events to make the team. This season there are 75 swimmers combined on the boys and girls teams.
“Other programs are combing the hallways looking for swimmers,” Countryside High coach Ian O’Neal said at the beginning of the season. “Lisa has so many that she has to cut them.”
Bitting has produced champions by preaching to her athletes that everyone has a redeeming quality; as teammates, their job is to find the positive in each other and let go of the rest.
The mission statement for Bitting’s charges is to focus on the process, not the outcome, to improve one’s performance, however incrementally, with no attention to the result. It is about excelling in the pool and the classroom.
“That is the difference between high school swimming and club swimming,” Bitting said. “For me, high school swimming is more of a team concept and I’m looking for improvement through the year and individuals who can become leaders and motivate the team.”
Palm Harbor University’s swim program has generated a stable succession of powerhouse teams, with nine straight conference titles and eight straight region championships for the boys. The girls also are on the rise after winning their first region title since 2004 and are seeded second overall entering the state meet.
This year’s boys and girls teams might be the greatest Bitting has ever had. The Hurricane boys have qualified in every event except diving and have two relays (200 medley, 400 free) as well as four swimmers — Ryan McRae (100 and 200 free), Jason Williams (50 free), Zach Perrotti (100 fly) and David Morgan (100 breast) — seeded in the top four.
The girls, though not as deep, have a good shot at placing in the top four in four events.
“Coach Bitting is a great teacher,” Morgan said. “She teaches us not only how to become better swimmers, but better people. She focuses a lot on the team, but also helps out with our individual goals. There is a good balance. We’re motivated to win and hoping to swim our hearts out. We want to do it for Coach, too, because she puts so much into it.”
The goal for Bitting is to get them to perform their best on the biggest stage. It is a complicated process. When she started coaching, the only technological requirements were a razor (shaving the arms and legs to go faster) and a stopwatch. Now there are sleek suits and regimented training programs to get a swimmer to capture the logic of form and function in the act of propulsion.
“There’s a lot of science and physiology involved,” said Bitting, who teaches biology in PHU’s International Baccalaureate program. “We’re all trying to get our swimmers to be the best when it counts the most.”
When: Thursday-Saturday. Prelims start at 9 a.m., diving at 1:30 and finals at 5:30.
Where: Central Florida YMCA Aquatic Center, Orlando
Admission: $9 per session; parking is $5.
Most state team titles
School Titles Last year won
Jacksonville Bolles 33 2010
Fort Lauderdale 17 1968
Fort Lauderdale Pine Crest 16 1987
Winter Park 14 1998
St. Thomas Aquinas 9 2004
School Titles Last year won
Fort Lauderdale Pine Crest 27 1990
Jacksonville Bolles 24 2010
Fort Lauderdale 22 1982
Winter Park 12 2000
St. Thomas Aquinas 10 2004