Sheets instills success in swim/dive program

Zach Petroff | Opinions Editor | David Sheets is entering his 22nd season as head coach of the swimming and diving team.

Zach Petroff | Opinions Editor

Oct. 20, 2022

There is nothing remarkable about the training facility for the Duquesne swimming and diving team. The Towers Pool is a standard training pool that features six lanes of 25 yards in length, as well as a touchpad scoring system and locker rooms. There are a few rows of bleachers, athletic training equipment and an office in the corner.

Inside the facility there is a stanchion near a whiteboard. At first glance, it looks like an ordinary pillar with scuff marks and typical marking of such a mundane architectural necessity.

Even after the beams were painted, the blemishes on the steel beams remain. Their survival serves as a reminder to what the women’s swimming and diving program was 23 years ago.

“This kind of grounds me a little bit with the program,” Head Coach David Sheets said. “The former coach that was here before me would just come in, he would tape the workout to one of these girders, these steel beams and then he would leave.”

Sheets — who’s heading into his 22nd season as head coach — inherited a team that was consistently at the bottom of the Atlantic 10 Conference. Since taking over, Sheets has helped the program rise to prominence, winning back-to-back conference championships in 2018 and 2019. During the 2022 season, Duquesne finished second, earning its eighth-straight top-three finish at the conference title meet.

A major part of the team’s formula for success is consistency. The team knows he is not going anywhere, which Sheets said creates stability.

“Coach Dave’s style has evolved since I first met him as a freshman,” former student-athlete Hanna Everhart said. “He is adapting to the changing landscape of college athletics, motivating to adopt a democratic and bureaucratic style. This has allowed for equal involvement and input from each of his swimmers and divers, while adhering to a strict training regime for end-of-season goals.”
In order to be successful for a long period of time, one needs to have that competitive edge. Sheets has that will to win, and it is apparent. Not one to take the easy way out, his path to becoming one of the most-successful coaches in Duquesne history reflects that.

Sheets was a 20-time NCAA Division II All-American at Clarion University, being part of a team that finished second at the NCAA D-II Nationals in 1992. In 2017, Sheets was inducted to Clarion University’s Sports Hall of Fame.

He knew he always wanted to be a coach, but also knew that getting into college coaching could be difficult. He wound up going to Clarion for a fifth year, where he earned his teaching degree.

After a year of coaching at the high school level in San Antonio, Sheets came back to Pennsylvania to get his master’s degree in exercise science at Slippery Rock University. During this time, he also taught in the Butler Area School District.

With the dream of coaching at the collegiate level still present, Sheets would continue to pursue his goal. During his fourth year of teaching, that tenacity would pay off when he took a coaching job at Cornell University.

It was a job that came with risk.

“It was, at the time, called a restricted earnings position, so it was only $20,000 a year with no benefits,” Sheets said, “but I knew that’s the kind of route that I wanted to go.”

The former All-American would leave his teaching job and eventual wife back in Pennsylvania to live in the basement of a house, all in pursuit of his dream.

When the position to coach at Duquesne opened up, Sheets did not hesitate to return. Twenty-two years later, he finds ways to take the program to the next level.

“I always still feel that there’s more that we can do at Duquesne swimming and diving,” Sheets said. “Two years ago, we ended up getting [Emma Brinton] qualified for Olympic Trials. That was always one of my goals.

“ … For me, it was just that there was always that next step in the progression of this program, and I never wanted to get the program to a point and then step away and leave it to somebody else, because I always felt that we could continue to get better.”

Sheets’ competitive nature is apparent in all phases of coaching.

“I’m very competitive. If there’s going to be a challenge, then I want to win it,” Sheets said. “Same thing with [Duquesne’s Day of Giving]. If there’s a chance there, and we’ve got other athletic teams involved in it, well, I want to win.”

During the 2022 Day of Giving, the swimming and diving team led all Duquesne athletics programs by raising $29,723.51.

Another indication of Sheets’ competitive spirit came when an opportunity at Grove City College became available. Someone that Sheets knew encouraged him to apply for the job. This came off as a challenge to him.

“He said, ‘You should apply for Grove City because Duquesne will never go anywhere,’ and that kind of added fuel to my fire,” Sheets said. “I was slightly insulted, and that was one of the things that drove me, you know, a little chip on your shoulder. So, I just think being able to prove people wrong is one of the things that drives me to continue to make our program successful.”
At the end of the day, Sheets’ main goal is to improve and educate young athletes.

“Thinking about where we were to where we are is probably one of my proudest moments,” Sheets said. “As a coach-mentor, watching our kids that leave our program go out and become successful contributors in society, watching them get married and watching them grow up, watching their kids grow up on Facebook, getting invited to go play golf with alums, just being involved in their lives from afar is one of my prouder moments.

“I look at this, even though it may be only four years or five years for some of our swimmers and divers, hopefully it becomes a lifetime.”