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The Age of Excellence: Hart swimming, the quiet and steady dynasty

In 2002, Hart won a CIF title; before and since, the Indians have been a dominant force in swimming

Posted: December 21, 2009 11:19 p.m.
Updated: December 22, 2009 4:55 a.m.

The Hart High School boys won the Foothill League championship and the CIF-Southern Section Division II title in 2002, the program's first division title.

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In 1994, the Northridge earthquake rattled Southern California.

As the walls of Hart High School shook, desks shifted, cabinets fell and trophies dropped to the floor.

Indians head swimming coach Steve Neale remembers sifting through the mess and salvaging what he could.

The program had amassed a multitude of awards and all of them were moved into room Q10, where Neale had taught for years.

Fifteen years later, the plaques, medals and ribbons have multiplied and still they remain in Neale’s room, quietly stowed away from the limelight.

Now packed in boxes pending their move to a new classroom, the awards represent decades of quiet achievement.

It is a success that has brought people together, polarized others and has largely gone unnoticed, making the Hart swimming program one of the most dominant in the Santa Clarita Valley’s history that people don’t know about.

“I think the 2000s really saw Hart get the regional and state recognition,” Neale says. “It had been building during the ’70s. It was in its infancy, real infancy. In the ’80s it was building, but it was still localized. We didn’t go to a lot of big meets. But I think now with the 2000s, we had some success in the ’90s, some real big success, but the 2000s really saw Hart High get that recognition, especially with Orange County, the respect from Orange County and the other places in CIF. Now I think Mission Viejo doesn’t keep asking, ‘Where is Hart?’”

In the program’s history, the Indians’ girls team has won 27 Foothill League titles, while the boys have won 22.

Both teams have claimed at least a share of every league championship over the last decade.

“You don’t want to let the previous generation down,” says Chris Weber, an All-American swimmer for Hart in 2007, 2008 and 2009. “They’ve all worked so hard and won so many meets over they years, you don’t want to be the team that loses it.”

Weber graduated in 2009 and now swims for University of the Pacific.

It’s a matter of pride that continues to drive the program.

“That pride is one of those elements in coaching that is the x-factor, the difference in winning by hundredths of a second or losing by hundredths of a second,” Neale says. “When the chips are down, the true champions rise, and that’s depending on their tradition.”

The Hart girls won the CIF-SS Division II title in 2008 and in 2002, the boys claimed the CIF-SS Division I crown.

There is no question that 2002 was a landmark year for the Hart swimming program.

The boys team was led by five All-American swimmers including Mike Linn, who came home with four CIF-SS Division I gold medals, winning the 50-yard freestyle and 100 freestyle individually and winning the 200-medley relay and 200-freestyle relay as a member of the relay teams. It is a feat matched only by 2000 Olympic gold medalist Anthony Ervin, who graduated from Hart High School in 1999.

“The swimmers are very aware they are swimming on the shoulders of previous generations of swimmers,” Neale says. “Whenever they get on the block, I stress it. They know that the past swimmers are there on their shoulders, on the blocks with them. I think it makes a difference.”

Also in 2002, the girls team won its 100th straight league dual meet. The last time the team lost a league meet was 1982, when it fell to Saugus 104-66.

Christine Worby, then Castellano, graduated the year before.

“I had gone back to watch the meets, especially that year, because it was a big year for us,” Worby says. “I think what separates us is that we have a lot of heart. Being a part of the 100-straight winning season, it just gives you pride and makes you feel really good that you were a part of something that special.”

In total, the Indians can boast a total of 63 All-American recognitions spread over 38 swimmers since 1977.

Thirty-nine of those qualifying times came during the 2000s.

Jordan Danny is one of seven swimmers in Hart’s history to earn All-American honors three times.

She is currently a freshman at USC.

Danny has seen the sport grow in popularity.

“I think with Michael Phelps winning the eight golds in 2008, it might have boosted our coverage a little,” she says. “I think it’s hard to compete with those team sports that just have so much fan support and money that they can give to their players and the revenue they generate.”

That interest began to materialize much earlier, as can be seen by the growth of the Hart program.

In 1970, the first year of the program, the Indians premiered a boys-only team with only 15 participants, including Neale.

That number grew to 91 in 2009.

Another reason for that growth has been Neale’s efforts in establishing a homeowners’ association league as he was hired to do in 1972.

Old Orchard I and II, Vista Hills and eventually Porter Valley.

In time, the city of Santa Clarita set up its own swimming program.

Add to that the Canyons Aquatic Club and children grew up with a wealth of swimming opportunity.

According to Neale, that early experience is invaluable when it comes to developing strong swimmers and a dominant program.

“It’s having those kids do flip turns and know what the butterfly is,” Neale says. “They know what the expectation of racing is and they are ready for it.”

However, swimmers asked about the program’s consistent success brought up another factor, and did so with enthusiasm.

They all credit Neale and his dedication.

“We all collectively came together and we knew we wanted to win a championship,” Danny says. “Mr. Neale made the program so amazing. We wanted to win for him.”

Neale was hired to be the head coach in 1984 after spending time as an assistant to then-Hart head coach Joel Barr. Neale was also the head girls swimming coach at Saugus and the head coach at Simi Valley High School.

He brings expertise and patience.

He has also fostered a family atmosphere that has resulted in multiple generations swimming for the Indians.

“We’ll tap into the best big talented families, and we’ll enjoy as many as 12 years of them going through the Hart program,” Neale says.

And with that is a loyalty to Hart swimming.

But not just to the program.

To each other as well.

“We were all connected,” Weber says. “Swimming is a very individual sport, but not for Hart High. It was a team sport. You swam as a team. No one person carried the team. That’s how Steve Neale worked it.”

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