JACKSON TWP — He never saw it coming. He never even knew he was a viable candidate.
So, when Seneca Valley swimming coach Brian Blackwell was informed last week that he was named PIAA Swimming Coach of the Year?
“I had to be sure the person wasn't kidding around with me,” Blackwell said. “I never expected to be considered for such a thing.”
His accomplishments say otherwise. So does his coaching message.
Seneca Valley athletic director Heather Lewis nominated Blackwell for the award.
“Brian is tremendous,” Lewis said. “He is so balanced in his coaching. He is into teaching his craft and constantly encourages kids to get back in the water and try to do better.
“He doesn't just care about the top 5% in terms of skill level. He cares about and works with everyone, regardless of ability.”
Blackwell also serves as director of the Seneca Valley Swim Club, an organization that has more than 100 swimmers. There are 50 swimmers on the high school team — 24 boys and 26 girls.
Both Raider varsity teams finished 12-1 last season, losing only to North Allegheny. Seneca Valley's boys were third in the WPIAL meet, the boys fourth.
Now in his 10th year of coaching at Seneca Valley, Blackwell has produced more than 100 WPIAL qualifiers and 24 PIAA medalists. He secured his 100th dual meet win with the Raiders in 2017.
“What I love about my situation here is I'm able to coach a lot of these kids for a long time,” Blackwell said. “Most sports, a high school coach gets a kid from his or her freshman through senior year.
“Because of our swim club, I was able to start coaching Owen Blazer when he was 9. He became one of the top swimmers to come through our program. I've coached a lot of these kids for a long time.”
Blazer also serves as a prime example of the message Blackwell sends to the young athletes he coaches.
Blazer had the fastest time in the state by far in the 100-yard backstroke entering the PIAA Championships at Bucknell University last March. He was also a member of two SV relay teams trying to reach the state finals.
Lewis explained that Blazer did not swim his hardest during the 100-yard backstroke preliminaries, choosing to preserve his best effort for the relay units.
“He swam as hard as he needed to, so he could qualify for the finals, but Owen's biggest concern was helping those relays — and his teammates — get through,” Lewis said.
The COVID-19 pandemic caused the state finals to be canceled that weekend. Medals were awarded based on the preliminary times — thus denying Blazer the PIAA gold medal he likely would have earned in the finals.
“Brian felt terrible about that situation,” Lewis said. “I told him he should feel proud. That young man put the team ahead of himself. That choice, that priority, came from Brian's coaching.
“I told him the 'team' attitude that young man will carry with him through life will benefit him way more than any gold medal hanging around his neck.”
Blackwell was an eight-time WPIAL medalist as a swimmer at Riverview High School. He won a district title in the individual medley and went on to swim at Washington & Jefferson College.
“I had some great coaches when I swam,” he said. “When I worked as a lifeguard, I gave some swim lessons, taught some private lessons.
“I liked helping kids get better. I knew I couldn't be a competitive swimmer forever, but I wanted to impact young people through the sport.”
And he has — Blazer and many others.
“When you're establishing relationships with young people, you have to be authentic with them,” Blackwell said. “That's how you develop trust.
“Once you have that, you can teach.”