The Saint Ignatius swimming & diving program has grown by leaps and bounds over the last decade, thanks in large part to the work of Mike Lehto and his coaching staff.
Now, Lehto is set to hand the reins over to the next leader of the program, who will look to further the Wildcats' success and take the program to an even higher level.
The next leader of the Aqua Cats will be Eric Dennis. The 18-year coaching veteran most recently served as coach at St. Edward High School.
"First off, I want to thank Mike for his great work and leaving the program in great shape," says Athletic Director Rory Fitzpatrick '88. "Eric is a person who will continue the great tradition of Saint Ignatius swimming & diving and build upon it. He works hard at his craft, educating himself and staying on top of the latest training and techniques. He also realizes the value of a Catholic education. Swimming is great, but teaching students how to be Men for Others is the most important part. Eric will be a great educator and example for our young men."
Dennis is a well-known member of the swimming & diving community in Northeast Ohio. With 18 years of coaching experience, Dennis has served in a variety of roles at both the high school and club level. As a swimmer, he was a three-time State Qualifier and set the St. Edward 200 IM school record.
Most notably, Dennis served as the St. Edward head coach from 2010-19. For the 2019-20 season, Dennis stepped into to an assistant coach role. Previously, Dennis spent seven seasons as the head coach for North Olmsted from 2002-09.
At the club level, Dennis owned, operated, and coached North East Ohio Nemesis USA club team from 2006-17. The competitive program instructed a wide-range of swimmers, from beginners participating in local meets to advanced swimmers competing on a national level. In 2017, Dennis joined the Cleveland Swim Institute (C.S.I.) as the Head Age Group Coach/Assistant Senior Coach, training and overseeing the coaching staff as well as developing and implementing swim practices and training plans. Dennis has coached numerous USA Sectional and Futures Qualifiers in addition to sending 4 swimmers to the USA Swimming Junior National Meet.
In his day job, Dennis serves as the Aquatics Director for the City of Fairview Park. In this role, he has managed and directed the city swim team, as well as overseeing all aspects of the indoor pools and outdoor splash parks since 2010.
In short, Dennis has a love for swimming, and is excited to bring that passion to Saint Ignatius.
"I'm very excited about this opportunity," Dennis says. "I'm very familiar with Saint Ignatius, having competed against the Wildcats with that school down the street for 10 years. I'm excited to be on the other side. During the interview process, I got the sense that everyone is on the same page and headed in the same direction. Your weakness is someone else's strength. I enjoyed that feeling, of how everyone gets along there. Wherever you're from and who you are, everyone wants to work together to succeed."
Having coached and attended St. Edward (class of 1999), Dennis knows the area swimming community quite well. That experience and knowledge will serve the Wildcats well.
An inspirational leader, Dennis' coaching philosophy emphasizes communication and maximizing your ability.
"Coaching-wise, I stress two things: 1. Timely communication and 2. Bringing the best of ourselves every day," Dennis says. "On deck, I will be very interactive and verbal about what I expect. We should be thinking every lap. We're not going to waste our time in the pool. And most importantly, I'll do what's best for the kids."
Along with his swimming knowledge, Dennis has a deep understanding of Catholic spirituality, and knows the mission of Saint Ignatius.
"Beyond swimming, I hope to teach them to be better human beings, and how to live life for others. Sports is one of the biggest teaching tools for that. In swimming, you're by yourself competing, but your team is counting on those points. You might not like the event you're swimming in for whatever reason, but you're giving of yourself for the betterment of the team. That's true in and out of the pool."
Dennis inherits a program in great shape. The Wildcats have competed well on the state level, regularly finishing in the top ten at the Division I State Meet in Canton. In 2017, the Wildcats notched a runner-up finish for the fourth time in program history. Last season, the Wildcats claimed the District Championship, unseating longtime Toledo District champ St. Francis.
Dennis' goals are to improve and further that success even more with the Wildcats' existing blend of talent and depth in the program. With the help of the team's swimmers, Dennis will chart the Wildcats' course.
"My philosophy is that this is an extended family more than a team," Dennis says. "I don't like to sit there and say 'This is our goal.' I want to get their feedback and get their goals together, asking them, 'What do you guys think?' To accomplish things, we need to be on the same page moving in the same direction. Saint Ignatius is a very proud community. We will put the best of ourselves out there, with a purpose and goal every time we get in the pool."