Haverford School senior Dan McGrath, right, and sophomore Matt Haigh are two big reasons why the Fords will arrive at this weekend’s Eastern
Haverford School senior Dan McGrath, right, and sophomore Matt Haigh are two big reasons why the Fords will arrive at this weekend's Eastern Championships at La Salle University hoping to match last year's fifth-place finish in the team standings, a program best. (Robert J Gurecki)

HAVERFORD — Dan McGrath has seen every step in the Haverford School swimming program's most progressive era.

He was there as a freshman when the goal of becoming the first team in program history to earn a top-six finish at the Eastern Interscholastic Swimming Championships was narrowly missed. A year later, his contributions complemented a vaunted senior class in attaining that first trophy-winning result.

When those seniors — including All-Delcos Andrew Helber and Connor O'Prey — departed, McGrath was at the forefront of steadying the ship, with he and 2013 Daily Times swimmer of the year Jimmy Jameson propelling last year's Fords, a team no one expected much from, to fifth at Easterns.

What once seemed so elusive has become the expectation for McGrath and his fellow Fords, and the Lehigh University-bound All-Delco is hoping to pen his own chapter in the recent history of success for the team at this year's meet at La Salle University starting Friday.

Haverford School coach Sean Hansen and his staff have enjoyed many accomplishments in their tenure, but perhaps the biggest triumph has been the instillation of belief in his swimmers, the kind of faith that year upon year, as the stars matriculate from Lancaster Avenue, there will be someone to fill their void.

That trust decisively clicked for McGrath earlier this season.

"I think it was our first home dual meet this year where we broke the medley relay record. Again," McGrath said. "I was a little worried going into the first meet, but we broke the record, and we broke it by over half a second. We had the team to do it, clearly, if it's the fastest we've ever been in-season."

The maturation of the program means that the question heading into this year's showpiece meet isn't if anyone will step up, but merely who those guys will be.

McGrath is a prime suspect. He's seeded sixth in both the 50 freestyle and 100 breaststroke; in the latter event, in which he's already turned in a personal-best time of 58.01 seconds this season, he'll be gunning for O'Prey's school record of 57.76.

Perhaps the bigger assault on history will come from sophomore Matt Haigh, who turned heads at the Inter-Ac Championships two weeks ago when he turned in a time of 4:37.31 in the 500, which has him seeded fifth. That time is the fastest in Delco history over the last quarter century, and all-time it trails only the efforts of Haverford High alum Bob Gavin at 4:32.24, set in 1984. It's the only county record that has endured from the 20th century.

Haigh is a kid of few words, so the Ridley Rays club swimmer's goals are delightfully simple.

"Get first," was his response for the 500.

And time-wise?

"Anything under 4:30," he said with a shrug.

"When I swam at Y Nationals, it was the first time where I broke 4:40, and I was pretty pumped about that," Haigh added. "And then at TYR Cup in December, which was another prelims and finals meet, I was 4:41 in prelims. And I talked to Sean between prelims and finals, and he said, 'Go for a best time.' And I went 4:37 then, and I was excited about that. So going into Inter-Acs, I knew that I could do a best time. ... Since I'm resting and shaving and tapering for Easterns, I really think I can go 4:30."

Haigh is also seeded 12th in the 200 free but could make a big move up the standings in a race he regards as a dead sprint.

The Fords' recent success has never been a one-man show, and it won't be this time around either. The Fords have a bevy of swimmers who could tip the balances by sneaking into B and C finals (points are awarded to finishers 1 through 18). Junior Ben Nelligan (seeded eighth in the 100 butterfly) and eighth-grade sensation Alex Boratto (sixth in the 100 back) could also score major points.

The Fords relays also figure to each be in the A final conversation, which could provide vital points in a crowded field where teams one through six are separated by miniscule margins. Realistically, a strong meet could vault the Fords as high as third.

While it's obviously McGrath's swan song, he believes he can still have an impact on the future. The power of hindsight has made the Fords appreciate Easterns as not just the culmination of one season but the yardstick to measure and motivate the next.

"Coming in last year after they got top 3 at Easterns, was kind of, 'how can everyone live up to that?'" Haig said. "And last year we did that. We got fifth. And no one thought that we could at the beginning of the season and we kind of worked into that. And I'm thinking that with what we've put up this year that we'll be able to take those best times that we get and set them as the starting point for next year."

"Honestly, at the end of last season, I thought that we didn't have a shot this year," McGrath said. "But we have Matt stepping up, we have our eighth-grader stepping up, and everybody who's here training with us has gotten so much better. We have that depth that we had two years ago again, and I'd be surprised if we didn't finish top six this year."