Since its inception in 1977, the swimming program at Bishop Hendricken High School has been led by one head coach.
Four-plus decades later, Dave Hanson can lay claim to a dynasty that, counting the pandemic-impacted 2021 season, includes 34 state titles. Held in regard as the best in your specific domain, as one year gives way to the next, means that something must be working.
“There’s definitely a sense of pride,” said Hanson.
As for the ultimate magic elixir that has enabled the Hawks’ swim program to rule the pool for an extended period, let’s just say that Hanson is the master when it comes to preaching tunnel vision. What the 1979-80 Hendricken team accomplished as the program’s first RIIL champion had no bearing on what took place in 1992 when that particular state championship-winning team rebounded from a rare in-season dual meet loss to Barrington.
Each season isn’t about chasing after the past. It’s about focusing on what’s ahead, not what took place 10, 15, or even 30 years ago when Hendricken was busy laying the groundwork for a swimming empire. The only time the pressure entered a higher stratosphere came in the early 2010s when the Hawks were looking to exceed the mark of 26 consecutive states won by the famed Mount St. Charles hockey program.
Different sports, but is there anything wrong with adding a little fuel to the proverbial fire? Hendricken wound up winning 24 swim titles in a row before the streak ended at the hands of Smithfield in 2014.
“It was almost a sense of relief. It was time to start over,” said Hanson, a graduate of Cranston West and URI.
Since turning the page and beginning anew, the Hawks have rattled off seven state titles in a row. Fingers crossed that the strain of the current pandemic will lessen to allow the state swim meet to take place for the first time since 2020, yet don’t expect Hanson to heap pressure on his current group of swimmers by mentioning those who came before them.
Andrew Knutton, Hendricken Class of ’97, remembers what it was like to show up to Warwick-based McDermott Pool each day for swim practice. Simply put, it was about teammates inspiring teammates. The swimming dynasty may have still been in its infancy, yet no one wanted any part of being on the team that ended the streak. The upperclassmen preached the importance of making sure the good times continued to roll, a message that Knutton made sure to pass down when he found himself in a leadership position.
“We raced each other as teammates and it wasn’t any different when we got to the meets. We loved each other and knew we were going to do well,” said Knutton. “We always welcomed the new guys. The Class of ’98 was so much better than my graduating year. Know what they did? They inspired us.
“You’ve got to live up to the legacy that came before you,” added Knutton, looking up at the Hendricken state swim banner prominently displayed inside McDermott Pool. “You may come in with talent but you have to put the work in. There’s a standard to live up to.”
From the internal drive of the actual swimmers seeking to add more years to the aforementioned banner, Hanson has proven to be a coach who can adapt to the times.
“I’ve mellowed somewhat,” he said with a slight laugh. “It’s about making them work.”
The message hasn’t fallen on deaf ears – not when you’ve won 31 of the past 32 Rhode Island Boys Swim State Championships and produced countless all-staters, some of whom went on to compete at a high level in college.
“It’s not about me. It’s about them,” said Hanson, cutting off a reporter just as he began rattling off the list of personal accolades that go with the territory of overseeing a high school sports dynasty. Two years ago, Hanson was named NFHS National Boys Swimming & Diving Coach of the Year for the 2018-19 school term.
Hendricken swimmers like Knutton knew what was at stake. They understood the significance of being part of a program that chased history in addition to state titles. From the vantage point of the only head coach that Hendricken swimming has ever known, it’s simply about staying present. Case in point, the 2021-22 Hawks have a chance to author a script that would be unique to them alone.
Maybe, just maybe, they’ll join the same club Knutton and countless others have joined over the years – the one reserved for a special dynasty.
“We’ve won with depth and won with superstars. We’ve also won the state championship without winning a single race,” said Hanson. “At the end of the day, it’s imperative to stress that it’s a team championship.”