Boys' Swimmer of the Year: James Wood's Joe Warnagiris

jwswimWINCHESTER — When asked about two races in December in which he was the runner-up to Kettle Run junior Jackson Tischler, James Wood junior Joe Warnagiris said he wished the Colonels and Cougars still competed each against each other in the postseason like they did during his first two years of high school.

That desire for competition is just part of why Warnagiris now stands alone in Frederick County high school swimming history.

Warnagiris is The Winchester Star Boys’ Swimmer of the Year for the second consecutive season as a result of a campaign in which he not only ruled the pool locally, but also at the state level.

Warnagiris — who had the area’s fastest times in seven of the eight individual events — became the first Frederick County boy or girl to win a Virginia High School League state swimming title when he captured both the 200-yard individual medley and the 100 breaststroke at the Class 4 meet on Feb. 17 at SwimRva in Richmond.

Warnagiris recorded the fastest times of his life in winning the aforementioned events, neither of which he was seeded first in coming into the competition. Warnagiris posted a time of 1 minute, 50.55 seconds in the finals of the 200 IM and a 56.43 in the finals of the 100 breaststroke. Coming into the meet, Warnagiris’ previous best 200 IM time was 1:52.53, and his top 100 breast time was 57.17. Those times were achieved in November and early December.

“After states last year, I told myself in my head I wanted to win states next year,” Warnagiris said. “I knew I could do it. I was working toward it the whole year. Every practice, I was thinking about it, and I ended up doing it.”

Warnagiris had competed in the 200 IM at each of his first two state meets (17th as a freshman and seventh as a sophomore), but this year marked the first time he competed in the breaststroke as opposed to the backstroke in Class 4 state competition. He was All-State in the 100 back each of his first two years, placing sixth as a freshman — the year he first set the school record — and fourth as a sophomore.

The backstroke is still a very strong event for Warnagiris. His time in the 200 short course meters backstroke preliminaries (1:47.05, which was 21st out of 136 swimmers) at the National Club Swimming Association Spring Junior Nationals held March 19-23 at the Rosen Aquatic Center in Orlando resulted in Warnagiris qualifying for the USA Swimming Summer Junior National meet for the first time in his life. It will take place from July 23-27 in Irvine, Calif.

Warnagiris’ experiences with the Winchester Swim Team following the 2022-23 VHSL season made him realize the 100 breast might be a pretty good option for his junior year, though.

Warnagiris’ older brother Paul — now swimming at NCAA Division I Gardner-Webb — starred in that event when he swam for the Colonels, and he set a James Wood school record of 1:00.57 in the 100-yard breaststroke in the 2021-22 season that still stood when he graduated in 2023.

“[WST head swim coach] Trey Shaffer was telling me that my breaststroke was looking a lot better, and it was getting a lot faster,” Warnagiris said. “He kind of was giving me reinforcement, telling me I could do better in breaststroke, and it could be one of my strong events if I put work into it.

“I was having good drops, and I was starting to catch up to my brother’s times. Then I beat his time at the beginning of this season. I thought if I keep dropping, I could win [that event] at states.”

Warnagiris set the Winchester Swim Team record in the 100 breast in November with that time of 57.17.

When the Virginia High School League competition season started in December, Warnagiris’ focus was on peaking for the VHSL postseason in February. But he got some strong competition early in the season.

Tischler — who has already committed to swim for the University of Virginia — recorded a time of 1:51.43 in the 200-yard IM on Dec. 15 at the Warrenton Aquatics Center to beat Warnagiris by four seconds. A week later at the Holiday Hundreds Invitational at the Prince William County Schools Aquatics Center, Tischler beat Warnagiris by half a second in the 100-yard backstroke with a 50.94 to Warnagiris’ 51.44.

Tischler went on to win the Class 3 title in the backstroke in 50.18, and took second in the 200 IM in 1:55.38, nearly five seconds slower than what Warnagiris achieved in Class 4.

“He was in better shape than I was for that [December] meet,” Warnagiris said. “We were at different points [in our training]. We’re good friends, and it’s a friendly competition. I wish they were still in our state class, because then I could have went up against him at states.”

Once January hit, Warnagiris bested all his competitors in every individual race he competed in for the rest of the season, which is typical. The only event he wasn’t the fastest in for the area this year was the 50 free (he was No. 2). The 50 free is also the only event in which Warnagiris doesn’t hold a school record. (James Wood keeps separate records for yards and meters. Warnagiris holds both records for the 200 IM, 100 free, 400/500 free and 100 back.)

About a month before the state meet, Warnagiris began visualizing his postseason path by looking at last year’s Class 4 state meet results.

Only two returning underclassmen finished ahead of Warnagiris in the 200 IM last year at the state meet. Monacan junior Cooper Dillman was the fastest of those two swimmers. Warnagiris saw that his top USA Swimming time was better than Dillman’s, and he felt he had what to took to beat him at the Class 4 meet.

The 200 IM is one of the first events at swim meets, but the backstroke and breastroke take place back-to-back and are the last two individual events. Warnagiris felt the breaststroke would be a better path to state gold than the backstroke with defending state champion Kyle Peck still in the picture for the backstroke.

Peck — a Chancellor senior who will swim for the University of Texas next year — was 4.4 seconds faster than Warnagiris at last year’s state meet in the back, and Peck wound up breaking his own state record with a time of 46.48 to win this year’s Class 4 meet. Warnagiris’ best time anywhere in the 100 back is 49.55. Warnagiris — who likely would have been the state runner-up in the 100 back — decided to swim the 100 back at the Region 4D meet just because he enjoys doing it. He won that competition by 4.37 seconds.

At the state meet, Warnagiris showed his talent, and why he chose the events that he did. His No. 2 seed for the 200 IM and No. 6 seed for the breaststroke based on his high school times were essentially irrelevant because of how fast his times were with WST, and he wound up winning the 200 IM by 1.44 seconds over Dillman and the 100 breast by 1.03 seconds over Max Schonfelder, the top returning swimmer in the breaststroke from the 2023 state meet.

Warnagiris was celebrated by his James Wood and WST teammates when he won in Richmond, and the congratulations kept coming after he got back to Winchester.

“A lot of my teachers have congratulated me, family, friends,” Warnagiris said. “I obviously am grateful for being able to win states. I’m grateful for all the support. It’s wonderful. Trey [with WST] and [head coach Jessica Barr and assistant Amanda Fordyce with James Wood] have done a really good job of coaching and pushing me through practice. They’re a big part of my success.”

Warnagiris also competed on the 200 medley relay team that placed fifth and the 400 free relay team that took ninth at the Class 4 meet. Outside of Warnagiris, the only returning member of those relays from 2023 was senior Ethan Britton on the 200 medley relay (that team took fourth last year). The 400 free relay was sixth last year.

“Our relays did a lot better than I expected them to do at the beginning of the season,” Warnagiris said. “I was just really happy for our team to be able to do that well in the relays. Eddie [Grimes] dropped so much time this season and took over backstroke in the medley, and I was able to swim the breaststroke. [The upperclassmen] have been good role models for him, and he’s been able to take after us, and his work ethic has gotten better.”

Warnagiris provided strong leadership in general for a James Wood team that compared favorably to last year, when his brother Paul led a group of six seniors who had big roles with the team. James Wood was third in Region 4D this year after taking second in Region 4C last year, and tied for eighth in Class 4 after taking seventh last year.

“He really helped the high school team with stroke techniques and the little things as an extra eye, someone that could give a little more feedback besides just Coach Fordyce and I,” Barr said.

Warnagiris has plenty of time before he needs to decide on a college, but he’s continued to make his talents more appealing since the state meet. His 200 backstroke time at NCSAs was a WST record, and Warnagiris also set WST records in the 400 IM (3:59.68) and 200 breast (2:05.42).

“He’s had some really big goals for the past couple of years,” Barr said. “I think this is going to be his year, not just in high school swimming, but with his upcoming meets for USA Swimming as well. It will be interesting to see how he builds on his success from the previous years and then seeing what he has in store for his senior year.”

— Contact Robert Niedzwiecki at
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