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AYER — Debbie Finch has been the coach of the Montachusett Regional YMCA Stingray Swim Team since the 1970’s and says that each year is new and different. “I really look forward to seeing what the kids will do each year,” said Finch. The 2009-2010 season exceeded her expectations in many ways and she is “incredibly proud” of her swimmers’ hard work and the accomplishments that came from that hard work. One huge highlight of the season was the team’s Swim Challenge for Haiti where parents, relatives, and community members could challenge swim team members to races. If they lost, they were asked to make a donation that would go to the Haiti Earthquake Relief efforts.

“Over $1,800 was raised and the kids were so into it and cheered louder than they have in any other traditional meet we have had,” Finch said.

Finch’s swimmers compete in a series of fall meets in the Worcester County Swim League, and ten of those swimmers went on to receive Worcester County All Star status. In order to be an All-Star, swimmers had to finish in the top three in their event at the league championships. The all-stars were Jessica Russell of Shirley, Jillian and Sam Folger of Shirley, Elianna Rodriguez of Fitchburg, Jonathon and Thomas Cahoon of Groton, Brennan Lawrence of Townsend, Jill Lee of Lunenburg, Christine Legsdin of Westminister, and Rachel Maillet of Leominster.

During the winter, Finch’s 53 swimmers swam in dual YMCA meets and if a swimmer’s time was fast enough in their events, they could qualify for two additional meets. The YMCA District Meets were held in late January/early February and 28 Montachusett swimmers qualified to go to that meet. The next level of competition is the New England YMCA Swimming Championships and this year Finch had nine qualifiers that swam at Harvard University’s Blodgett Pool on the weekend of March 12-14.

“The New England qualifying times are very tough — this is an incredible accomplishment that all of these athletes should be proud of. It took a lot of hard work and determination for them to get to this point,” Finch added.

Shirley’s Kelly Russell, 13, has been swimming for Finch for four years.

“This was my first time making it to New Englands and it was amazing,” Russell said.

Finch was very happy for Russell’s 50-yard backstroke qualification, and added that she was very pleased with the “hard work she put in to accomplish this”.

Jonathon Cahoon, 17, qualified for the 50 freestyle and the 100 butterfly and Finch noted “the huge amount of talent he has”. Cahoon’s brother Thomas, 15, swam against him in the 50 free and is “incredibly dedicated to swimming” according to his coach.

“The quiet but focused demeanor” of Leominster’s Eric Dickinson helped him qualify for the boy 15-to-18-years-old 50-yard freestyle, while Rachel Maillet’s “extraordinary talent and motivation” helped her earn a spot in the 13-to-14-years-old 50-yard freestyle. Christine Legsdin, 14, not only qualified for the 50 free and the 100-yard backstroke, she also broke two team records during the season. “She works hard and you can see the drive in her eyes,” said Finch.

Finch noted that thirteen-year-old Brennan Lawrence is an “extremely talented athlete” and that athleticism helped him swim his way to the New England Chamionships in the 50 free and 100-yard butterfly. Jillian Folger, 10, “has worked very hard for her accomplishments but never brags about it”, said Finch. She swam in both the 50 and 100-yard freestyle events for 9 to-10-year-old girls. Folger’s brother Sam is the youngest swimmer on the team to qualify for New Englands. Sam, 7, qualified to swim the 25-yard butterfly, the 25 and 50-yard freestyles, the 25-yard backstroke, and the 100-yard Individual Medley- but due to the region’s rule that you can only swim 3 events, he opted out of the 50 free and 25 back.

“Sam just says ‘I’m going to do it’ and he does. For a little kid he is really good at goal setting,” added Finch.

Finch reported that all of her swimmers had good showings. “A lot of the kids took time off of their qualifying times and we had one swimmer take a medal home from the meet.” Shirley’s Sam Folger went home with an eighth place medal in the 25-yard butterfly. “It was great to see the kids do well all season. All of the effort and practices have really paid off.”