St. Mary's may be a small school, but it sure feels big when you stand in front of the student body to speak.

St. Mary's may be a small school, but it sure feels big when you stand in front of the student body to speak.

Just ask Alyse Darnall, who did just that as she made a morning announcement earlier this year. The basketball squad spoke a few words in the gymnasium and then, suddenly, all eyes were on her.

The senior took on the nerve—racking task of promoting a new sport.

She and several of her water-loving classmates stepped up to bring a swimming team to the school. They mined the hallways and classrooms for interest and, at times, spoke in front of several hundred students.

"I was told by the AD that if I don't get a certain number of kids, we wouldn't have it at all," Darnall recalls. "I was determined to get as many as possible."

Their recruiting work, along with the efforts of St. Mary's athletic director James Joy and coach John Cooper, turned an idea into reality this fall.

The Crusaders have a swim program for the first time, and it is a good one at that.

St. Mary's squad is made up of 14 girls and four boys. Of that mix, six are high-level club swimmers, six are foreign exchange students and the others have some experience. The team's next scheduled meet is at Grants Pass with Crater and the Cavers on Jan. 18.

The creation of the club created a power shift of individual talent because the Azusa Pacific-bound Darnall had a hand in three state titles last year — with Phoenix High. She won the 100-yard freestyle and swam legs on the winning 200 and 400 free relay squads (she was also second in the 100 backstroke).

Now she is swimming in the same 4A/3A/2A/1A classification as the Pirates, but with the school she has attended all along.

Because St. Mary's, a private school, didn't have a team, OSAA rules allowed her to compete for the school she'd otherwise attend.

Schoolmate Grace Jovanovic followed a similar path, swimming and playing softball for North Medford. She'll continue to do the latter. She starts in right field for the Black Tornado and had the winning hit in the state title game last spring.

Seeing Phoenix at the season-opening meet was bittersweet, Darnall says. The Pirates' relay combination of Darnall, Kylee Burks, Olivia Sanchez and Lauren Speaks is no longer: Burks and Speaks are back, but Sanchez did not come out and sophomore Emily Samudio and freshman Tiona Hurd took over the two vacant spots.

"It is a little tough," Darnall says. "I was co-captain (at Phoenix) last year. To not be with my team that I know, it was a little weird, but at the same time, having my own school and leading them is great."

Says Phoenix head coach Jim Heath: "It is hard to see her go for her senior year, but that is the way things go."

Students began inquiring about swimming at St. Mary's a couple years ago, Joy said. The school looked into it last season but couldn't make it work in time.

Joy and others eventually pieced together a schedule, gained permission from District 4 and the OSAA and secured practice times at pools at Southern Oregon University and Rogue Valley Family YMCA.

Darnall, along with high-level club teammates Jovanovic (a junior), Olivia Dow (freshman) and Andrea Dow (senior), invited their fellow St. Mary's students to join the proposed team. The sales pitch was that it's fun, great exercise and full of school spirit. Several Chinese and South Korean classmates were quickly interested, Darnall says.

After an approval process, the OSAA gave St. Mary's the thumbs up this fall.

"We had a ton of interest," Joy recalls. "Upwards of 30 kids came to an information meeting. ... Once we secured the pool time it was easy to kick it off."

The 28-year-old Cooper was an easy hire, Joy and others say. He was an age-group coach with the Superior Stingrays for seven years and was himself a standout in southern California and later at Eagle Point. He had already worked with Jovanovic, Olivia Dow and Darnall since they were very young.

The only problem was, Cooper's work schedule at UPS keeps him booked.

"They approached me and I didn't know if I had the time to do it," says Cooper, who also has experience coaching at Eagle Point and Crater. "They kept telling me they wanted me to do it, and things fell into place."

The club swimmers don't always practice with the rest of the team, but it's not because they are giving anyone the cold shoulder. Their club schedules are very demanding and require separate practices, Cooper says. Plus the homework load at St. Mary's is time consuming, Jovanovic adds.

That dynamic can sometimes create friction between high school and club coaches, Cooper says. But his extensive background as a swimmer (he began racing at age 3 and specialized in the butterfly) and relationship with Superior Stingrays coach Robin Brickenden and Rogue Sharks coach Tim Manley makes for a healthy connection between school and club.

"They are doing high school for fun and for their school, but they have other goals," says Cooper, who was the first Eagle Point swimmer to ever qualify for state. "They want to get to senior nationals and make cuts for meets. Really, when it comes down to colleges looking at you, they are looking at your club experience. Like Alyse, being a senior, I am not going to tell her to be at high school practice every day. She's got to be at club practice for two hours doing way harder stuff than anything I could have her do."

At the Class 6A state meet last season, Jovanovic placed fifth in the 100 butterfly and ninth in the 100 breaststroke.

Since she now shares a classification with Cascade Christian senior Breanna Sapienza, her district and state plans will likely change. Sapienza, who is bound for Vanderbilt on a swimming scholarship, dominated both events at state last year.

Jovanovic speculates that she may pick up the 200 individual medley.

"Depending on what she does, I will do whatever she isn't doing," says Jovanovic, who is friends with Sapienza and will communicate with her on her plans as the season progresses.

The Crusaders — who will not host any meets this season — have competed in three meets so far and will do three or four more before districts, Cooper says. He believes the relay combination of Darnall, Jovanovic and the Dows could make a top-three splash at state. The combination has already produced regular-season triumph.

The real victory, however, Darnall says, was turning the dream of a St. Mary's team into reality.

Reach reporter Dan Jones at 541-776-4499, or email