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Pennington adds a successful first season under her cap

SSU swim coach Kenzie Pennington
Jerry Pennington
SSU swim coach Kenzie Pennington

A year ago, Kenzie Pennington stood on the blocks in Columbus, Georgia, to race her final event as a Shawnee State swimmer. As an athlete since 2006, the 23-year-old Pennington looked toward her final race with relief that the journey was ending and a sense of excitement about a different challenge ahead.

At the end of the 2022-23 season, it was clear that Pennington was going to step up into a coaching and administrative role for the SSU swim program. However, no one was aware that she would become one of the youngest head coaches at Shawnee State University.

The original plan was for Pennington to learn and grow under previous head coach Gerald Cadogan. However, Cadogan was appointed to be the newest athletic director of SSU mid-summer, and it changed the course of the program. Pennington was thrust into her new position with some coaching experience, although minimal at the collegiate level. She had been coaching a local YMCA team in Ashland, Kentucky, since 2018, moving from assistant coach to head coach within a few years. Cadogan was confident in Pennington’s ability to take over the team he built despite the lack of high-level coaching.

“She was the future of our swim program,” Cadogan explained. “She is very detail-oriented, and her knowledge of the sport is vast. The way she formulates practices and weight programs will lead to great things. Kenzie is a passionate coach, and her drive and vision for cultivating something great was evident when I saw how passionate she was about her club swim team in Ashland, Kentucky.”

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Cadogan’s immense trust and support of the newest coach made his athletes feel more secure.

Senior Carissa Link, a founding member of the SSU swim team, said that “by allowing Pennington to transition into his previous role, he (Cadogan) was able to give the team support at the highest level while allowing the new head coach freedom to advocate for her visions of the team and find success in her own way.”

Link continued: “After knowing the thought and effort which was placed on her future with this team, I fully trusted her as our new coach and embraced any changes made.”

There was concern that the 2023-24 season was simply going to be an adaptation and learning year. Several members of the team feared that Pennington’s transition from athlete to head coach would be a tricky obstacle for the team. Pennington was able to quash those doubts and start a transformation of the program. Men’s captain Evan Siberell described the transition as smooth because the team members felt secure in their new coach’s plan.

“Everyone looked up to her as a leader on the team before, so it continued over to her as a coach,” Siberell stated. “We trust her coaching style, and even though there are some tough days, we know it’s going to make us better.”

The team improved to 19 wins in the 2023-24 season, adding a winning record to the women’s and men’s programs. There were several athletes that competed under Cadogan and Pennington who vastly improved under the latter’s guidance.

Sophomore Evan Bower is one of those athletes. The difference between his first appearance in the 2022-23 Mid-South Conference and his 2023-24 Mid-South performance highlights this phenomenon. In both championship showings, he competed in the 500 freestyle. In the 2022-23 season, Bower finished in the morning preliminary session with a time of 5:39.41, 20th overall placement and no evening finals bid. When he competed in 2024, he finished the morning session in 12th place with a 5:20.70 and an opportunity to compete in the B Finals that evening. At the end of the day, he held his 12th place, and he dropped five more seconds (5:15.30) between the events. Bower had an extremely impressive change between his freshman and sophomore seasons that is not typically seen, registering an eight-place rise and nearly 25-second drop.

In previous years, the team struggled to get one or two athletes to hit a national cut time. Pennington’s team has five athletes with a cut time, four of them achieving more than one. There are two different ways an NAIA swimmer can be put into consideration for the championship. The athlete can either win their event in their school’s conference competition or they can meet a designated national cut time A/B. The NAIA releases these times at the beginning of each season based on the average times in each event over the past three championship finishing times. Overall, an athlete is most likely to receive an invite because of their achievement of a national cut time.

Both Siberell and Link adamantly stated that the success of the team was largely due to Pennington’s personalized practice sets and plans. She was able to take what one athlete did well, focus on it and sharpen it so that each athlete was able to contribute to the team’s triumphs.

Pennington started the season with a goal to add strength to an already succeeding program and continue to foster a healthy team dynamic.

“We have a great group of individuals that add so much to the program with their personalities,” Pennington stated. “What we have now and what we want to continue to grow is a group of athletes who support each other and have the team’s best interest at heart. This isn’t just a team; this is a family, and that’s how we like to function.”

Each of her athletes thinks that she has been able to achieve her goals.

“The team morale was rooted by anyone who has had a hand supporting our team — from captains organizing team bonding outside practice times, media team covering our growing program and the constant love and community of family, friends and volunteers,” Link elaborated. “As student-athletes, we all go through rough patches physically and mentally, but the unconditional support for our efforts goes a long way.”

Pennington hopes for her team to continue to expand and develop in the offseason, looking forward to an even more prosperous 2024-25 season.


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About the Contributor
Maggie Kayt Franks
Maggie Kayt Franks, Staff Writer
Maggie Kayt Franks is 20 years old and a sophomore at Shawnee State University. She is originally from Huntington, West Virginia. Her major is sports management with a concentration on marketing and communications, and she is pursuing a minor in sports coaching and journalism. Maggie Kayt joined the Chronicle staff as part of the news writing and reporting class required for her communications concentration and her journalism minor. She has also worked as a sportswriter for the Herald-Dispatch in Huntington. Maggie Kayt is a collegiate swimmer for Shawnee State University and is very passionate about it. She also loves teaching kids how to swim and takes pride in it, as swimming is a valuable skill. She is also learning how to bake and cook. When asked what she thinks she can gain from her experience with the Chronicle, Maggie Kayt said, "I am hoping to work on my writing skills when it comes to general news writing that is not centered around sports." She is very excited to be a part of the Chronicle team and looking forward to where this semester can take her as writer. Her attitude reflects a quote by the late North Carolina State basketball coach Jim Valvano that Maggie Kayt said she lives by: "Know where you have been, where you are now and where you want to be."

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