Ocean City High School girls swimming coach Kate Merz has a talented team with several Press All-Stars, but she naturally takes a cautious attitude about the season.

The Red Raiders are three-time defending Cape-Atlantic League National Conference champions.

Ocean City has Noel Styer, Rachel Chain and Gabby Breazeale back, and Amber Glenn is a transfer from Atlantic City.

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All were Press first-team All-Stars, and Aly Chain and Erin Myers, both Press second-teamers, also return.

O.C. opens the season at Holy Spirit at 4 p.m. Thursday at the Dr. Martin Luther King Westside Complex in Atlantic City.

The Red Raiders' home opener is Dec. 13 against Absegami at the Ocean City Aquatic and Fitness Center.

Besides conference meets, O.C. takes on Vineland (away on Jan. 9), Atlantic City (away on Jan. 21) and Mainland Regional (home on Jan. 28).

Ocean City was 8-2-1 and finished at No. 7 in The Press Elite 11 last year in Merz's first season as head coach.

"I don't want to say too much because they still haven't done anything yet," Merz said. "There's a lot of great things we're looking forward to, but we still have a lot of hard work to do."

Merz swam on a state Non-Public A championship team at Holy Spirit High School in 2007, and then swam for Division I Fairfield University in Connecticut.

She took over as O.C. head coach last winter and the Red Raiders made a big impact in the CAL.

Ocean City won three races at the Hackney High School Girls Invitational Swim Meet, and took Division B of the South Jersey Swimming Association Coaches Invitational Meet.

The Red Raiders won four races at the Frank Forde Cape-Atlantic Individual Swimming Championships.

In dual meets, the Red Raiders lost only to Atlantic City 96-74 in the regular season and to Haddonfield 97-73 in a South Jersey Public B semifinal. O.C. tied Mainland Regional 85-85.

"It felt good to have a successful season," Merz said. "I had a lot of help from my assistant, Brittany O'Donnell. We knew we had a lot of talented girls coming in last year. They were experienced and meshed together."

Merz says that her coaching philosophy stems from Mike Schiavo, her coach at Holy Spirit and now in his first year as the Mainland girls coach.

"Mike Schiavo taught me the meaning of 'team'," Merz said. "He said, 'Swim fast and have fun.' That was refreshing to me, instead of having someone say, 'We have to win.' Having fun as a unit is just as important as winning a race."

O'Donnell is a former head coach at Rancocas Valley Regional.

"I think we're trying to work on team bonding and on finding out what they're good at," O'Donnell said. "We want to keep the momentum going. Everyone is expecting good things, but we don't want to get ahead of ourselves."

Styer placed fifth in the 50-yard freestyle in a school-record 23.98 seconds in March at the state individual swimming championships, called the Meet of Champions. She also won the 50 freestyle at the Hackney High School Meet, and the Forde CAL Individuals, and took both the 50 and 100 freestyle at the South Jersey Coaches Meet.

"I guess we feel a little pressure," said Styer, a 17-year-old senior from Longport. "We take it one at a time and give it our all every time. Hopefully we'll go higher in states in individuals and relays. I want to be top three in the 50 at the Meet of Champions. This year is different from last year because we have 14 freshmen and a lot of depth. It's exciting being a senior. You're supportive to the young group and teaching them.

Captains are seniors Styer, Rachel Chain, Rachel Matousch, Natalie McKenna and Julie Cusack.

"It's exciting to talk about (the upcoming season) but we don't want to become overconfident," said McKenna, 17, an Upper Township resident. "I'm excited about the team. It's a great group."

Cusack also runs cross country and plays girls lacrosse.

"It takes a little while to get in swimming shape after cross country," said Cusack, also 17 from Upper Township. "We're doing a lot of strength training and dry-land workouts.

"I think we'll do well. We have a lot of depth."

Glenn, now a sophomore, had a big year for Atlantic City last year, winning the 200 and 400 freestyle events at both the Hackney and CAL Individual events. She won the Division A 200- and 500-yard freestyle at the Coaches Meet. She was fifth in the 500 at the Meet Of Champions and 13th in the 200.

Rachel Chain was first in the 100 backstroke last winter at the Hackney, Coaches and CAL meets. Breazeale, now a junior, was 18th in the MOC in the 100 butterfly.

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