NEW PALESTINE — The waves in the pool at New Palestine High School were rolling.

Dozens of Dragon swimmers were moving through the water at a rapid pace, getting in some serious laps while swim coach Jason Tillage watched their form and offered instruction.

It’s still several months until the start of the official high school season, but Dragon swimmers will be competing well beforehand in official USA Swimming events.

The school’s swim program, led by Steve Maxwell, revitalized the competitive part of the Hancock Aquatic Team (HAT), a program designed to give local swimmers a chance to not only train, but compete out of season against other top swimmers.

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The Hancock Aquatic Team is a year-round swim club offering top-notch coaching and technique instruction, but the local program now also offers competitive swimming for athletes in meets against other swim clubs.

While Maxwell has run the HAT program for years, teaching instruction year round, the competitive side of the program dropped off in 2011. Maxwell turned to his diving coach, Tillage, to get that part of the program back up and running this summer, and Tillage has.

They’ll hold an inter-squad meet in August and start competing in September in official USA Swimming meets.

“We’re really excited about it,” Tillage said. “These kids, they’re putting in the effort.”

Louis Holbrook, a senior, was new to the Dragons swim program last year, and because they didn’t have anything competitive in the off season, he felt it hurt his chances to swim in college. Now that he’s competing throughout the off-season, colleges are taking notice.

“Colleges really like to see that we’re swimming and competing year round,” Holbrook said. “It really makes a huge difference.”

Maxwell had been wanting to restart the competitive side of HAT for some time and knew Tillage was the coach for the job. Maxwell coached Tillage when he was a swimmer at Warren Central High School before he graduated in 1998.

Tillage, 38, of New Palestine, went on to have an 11-year career in the Navy as a flight engineer and began coaching diving for the Dragons a couple of years ago after Jeff Scripture, a long-time diving coach, passed away in 2015.

Tillage was thrilled to get the chance to help develop local swim talent, he said. His motto is pace, positive attitude creates excellence.

They have nearly 20 Dragons swimmers in the HAT program working during the offseason and almost 80 swimmers total from the ages of 4 to 18 taking part. The developmental swim program is huge in creating a buzz around the Dragon swim program, Tillage said.

A swimmer can improve by getting in the water during the off-season, but unless they are doing thousands of laps and competing against other swimmers, they are not going to reach their potential, which is what the competitive side of HAT is designed to help swimmers do, Tillage said.

Many Dragons swimmers, including Maria Virt, junior, are looking forward to competing for HAT during the non-high school season.

She knows the work she puts in now will pay off when the high school season starts and said she and the other swimmers will be better prepared when Maxwell takes over high school training in October.

Teammate Hailee Holberton, a senior, was also pleased to be given a chance to compete with her high school teammates during the off-season.

“Swimming is a very demanding sport and you suffer even when you take a week off,” Holberton said. “Getting the chance to compete before the season starts, that’s a big deal.”

Holberton didn’t have any swim training as a youth and said the younger area swimmers training and competing in HAT now will improve by leaps and bounds and will be better prepared once they get to the high school team.

Tillage agrees and said a swimmer can spend countless hours in the pool, but competition is what will help them improve.

Tillage and and his wife, who works at New Palestine High School as the athletics director’s secretary have two small daughters who attend Brandywine Elementary School.

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Kristy Deer is a reporter at the Greenfield Daily Reporter. She can be reached at 317-477-3262 or