By Joe Mason
Kelley McHugh knows exactly how important it is to have a role model.
McHugh is a senior swimmer on the Little Flower High School swimming team, and growing up she always had her sister Ally showing her the ropes.
Sure, Kelley had a world of talent, which has been on display since the first time she jumped into the pool, but it certainly helped to have that mentor to look to for guidance.
This year, with her sister Ally at Penn State, Kelley was the unquestioned leader of the Sentinel swimming squad.
Not only was she everything the team needed in the water, but she set a perfect example. It helped Little Flower gain wins, even though it cost her and her father some extra sleep.
“I swim for Penn Charter (club) team, and practice was in the morning before school,” the Fox Chase resident said. “I would have to wake up at 4:45 and we needed to get out of the house by 5:10. My dad would drive me, so sometimes I would sleep a little in the car. Then after practice, it was about five minutes to get to Little Flower.”
That’s leadership by example.
And one swimmer who paid particular attention to McHugh’s work ethic was freshman sensation Gina Cantoral.
Like McHugh, Cantoral also competes for Penn Charter, and she came into high school a highly touted swimmer. But like all freshmen, she had some things to learn before competing at the high school level.
The biggest thing was confidence, but a few pep talks from McHugh, and Cantoral was ready to swim with anyone.
“At first, I was nervous because I never swam against 18-year-olds, it’s a lot different,” the Bustleton resident said. “Kelley really helped me. She would talk to me. She taught me a lot. She was definitely my role model, and was always ready to help me whenever I needed it.”
Both girls were All-Catholic swimmers, won District 12 individual championships and qualified for the PIAA state swimming championships.
McHugh was All-Catholic in every event she swam, and had a hand in the Sentinels’ 400-yard freestyle relay that won the district championship.
Cantoral didn’t waste any time making her mark.
She broke the school record in the 50- and 100-freestyle events, and set another school record a week later in the state championships.
And like McHugh, she had a hand in the 400 free relay that claimed the district crown.
It helps that both girls are great swimmers, but that’s not what makes them such an asset to the team.
“Both are incredibly talented girls, who are very humble and hardworking, dedicating the entire year to honing their abilities,” Little Flower coach Sean Clothier said. ”Kelley’s leadership and mentoring of Gina this past season enabled us to have one of our most successful seasons ever and have put us on a path to even greater success in the future.”
Both girls will be successful in the future.
Next year, McHugh, who won a Catholic League championship during her freshman year, will continue her swimming career at Bloomsburg University, where she plans on majoring in early childhood education.
And while she’s looking forward to swimming in college, she’ll certainly miss her days at Little Flower.
“I’m going to miss it a lot because I had so much fun here,” McHugh said. “Freshman year was great when we won the Catholic League and the District 12 championship. But all the years were great. I’m going to miss it.
“I think college will be good, too, because it’s different. You don’t have to worry about getting to practice, you are already there. You just go. That will be nice.”
While McHugh is moving on, Cantoral will take on her role at Little Flower.
Yes, she’ll just be a sophomore, but she is the most accomplished swimmer on the team, so the swimmers will look up to her.
And she’ll be ready to lead the way.
“I’ll be ready to help anyone,” Cantoral said. “After I started swimming against the high school swimmers, I felt more comfortable. It’s very competitive, but I’ll be ready to lead. I’ll use what I learned this year, especially from Kelley.”
That’s the perfect plan, according to the coach.
“Kelley is the greatest of the greats, she does great in high-pressure situations and she was always up to the challenge,” Clothier said. “We expect the same out of Gina. She is a really good swimmer, but she’s also a great person. Both are so successful and talented, but they’re great teammates and that means a lot.” ••