Naelitz’s high school journey reached its crescendo Wednesday, which was national signing day for swimmers. The Wildcat senior is headed to Mars Hill (N.C.) College.
Two things paramount to Naelitz’s decision were a school that offered his preferred major of athletic training as well as the opportunity to swim.
“My goal was to go somewhere I could major in athletic training but also swim,” said Naelitz, who considered schools like Georgia Tech, Auburn, the University of Hawaii at Manoa and Valdosta State. “Mars Hill has athletic training, they have a very good swim team and they both work very well together.”
His decision appears even more fitting considering Lions coach Teddy Guyer is set to lose a swimmer that specializes in Naelitz’s main event — the butterfly.
“In high school I’ve swam butterfly and freestyle … The coach from Mars Hill is losing his butterflyer. We’ll see. I’ll probably build into that spot since that’s what I swim, so we’ll do some 100 yard fly and some 200 fly,” Naelitz smiled.
The 100 fly is one of four records Naelitz holds at the Bartow County Championships. He also owns county meet records in the 200 medley relay, 200 free relay and 400 free relay. At Woodland, Naelitz’s school records include the 200 medley relay, the 200 free relay and 400 free relay.
“Zach has been the foundation, definitely, this year and has been one of the scaffolds for the last three years for this program. He’s done a fantastic job setting the tone, being a role model and leading by example,” head coach Joshua Ruger said. “He never was one for fierce speeches, until his senior year when he took over the role as a captain and he really did a great job, probably the best captain we’ve ever had.”
“He was Bartow County swimmer of the meet. He’s the only quad winner at the Bartow County Championship,” Ruger continued. “He holds more records, individual records, than anyone else in the county. He’s won more events than anyone else in the county, and he is right now our Woodland High School points leader. We had a kid, Travis Culp, graduate last year. He scored a career-high 509 points for his four years. Zach beat him with about 540. So he didn’t just beat him, he really killed it.”
All of this wouldn’t have been so easy to predict when Naelitz first began swimming for the school. Years later, the swimmer doesn’t even know how he or his classmates made it through well enough to continue following that first season.
“When I first started swimming, I was still kind of new at it. It was just like one of those new things. I liked it. It was a lot of fun. And actually, some of the other seniors, we ask ourselves why we continued swimming after our freshmen year because it was a rough year,” Naelitz remembered. “But I really enjoyed the sport so I stuck with it. I’d had the thought and aspiration of swimming in college and it started to diminish, but I thought to myself what else am I gonna do ’cause anytime I wasn’t swimming, I was thinking when am I getting back in the water.”
It may have been a rough first year for Naelitz and his peers, but assistant coach Lance Marvel recalls a contributor to the team.
“He wasn’t always on the ‘A’ team, but he contributed right off the bat,” Marvel added. “The thing about Zach is he’s a good listener. He’s one of those kids when you say something, he tries to apply it. We got a lot of kids that you can talk to ’em till you’re blue in the face, and they won’t try it. But Zach, when he heard you give him a cue on what to do, he changed it, he tried to fix it.”
Naelitz established himself as one of the Wildcats’ best swimmers as a sophomore and hasn’t looked back since.
“From his sophomore year on, he’s been on ‘A’ team. He’s qualified for state his sophomore, junior, senior year. He was a state finalist the last few years,” Ruger said. “[He’s] a very internal, fierce competitor, and it’s been an absolute pleasure and delight to have him for four years. You always say you wish you had a few more. If I had a team full of him, things would be different, and if I could keep him for a few more years, then that’d be great too, but unfortunately we just can’t do that. Time is so fleeting.”
The Woodland head coach figures his star swimmer will endure some growing pains at the next level, not unlike what many incoming freshmen experience.
“We always say that the best and brightest in high school are always just kind of standard at first in college. He’s gonna take his licks just like everybody else. Zach’s been swimming at an elite competitive level for only four years, which means his body hasn’t gone through a lot of the turmoil that goes on in these rigorous workouts,” Ruger acknowledged.
Naelitz understands how much tougher the competition will be with many swimmers, like himself, once the best at their high schools.
“The biggest change will definitely be the level of competition. Everyone’s gonna be one those kids that were their top swimmers for their team. You look at everyone else and they’re all fast because they’re finally swimming in college and they’ve had all that training and all that experience now underneath them,” Naelitz said.
Naelitz, too, will get even more experience under his belt and thrive even more for it, his head coach believes.
“I don’t think he’s anywhere near close to peaking yet, which is great,” Ruger said. “He split a time in the 50 fly in the medley at state at a [time of] 24.88 [seconds], and that puts him — as far as a 50 goes — as one of the elite times — not just in the area, but in the state. A 24.8 in a 50 fly is flying.”
“Mars Hill is getting one heck of a swimmer … but more importantly a great student-athlete,” he said. “He’s gonna do what needs to be done in the classroom, and he’s also gonna make sure he will get done what needs to be done in practice. He’s very dedicated, very determined and — just both sides of the coin — I just don’t see him going anywhere but up, and Mars Hill is definitely privileged to have Zach for the next four years.”
“He comes from a really good group of high-achieving kids and he’s just carried that over into his sports,” added Marvel, who has seen four members of the Naelitz family grace the swimming program in his time. “He was the heart of the team this year. Everything kind of centered around him; he set the tone and everyone else followed.
“It’s been the best year that I’ve coached, and it’s mostly because of the leadership at the top in Zach and we’re real proud of him and real happy that he’s got the scholarship and know that he’ll do fine.”