Haverford School’s Dan McGrath checks his time in the 50 yard freestyle at the 2014 Eastern Interscholastic Swimming Championships at La Salle
Haverford School's Dan McGrath checks his time in the 50 yard freestyle at the 2014 Eastern Interscholastic Swimming Championships at La Salle University. (Times Staff / ERIC HARTLINE) (Eric Hartline)

PHILADELPHIA — Dan McGrath doesn't strike you as the emotional type.

But as the Haverford School senior, his face as red as his linebacker-sized shoulders get during the middle of race, looked at the fifth-place cup he cradled in his hands Saturday night, the joys and sadness of four years of high school came flooding back.

Through it all, through the goodbyes and pictures, there was a prevailing sense of pride for McGrath and his fellow seniors, as much because of the hardware they'd accrued as the mentality they'd changed.

What had once seemed so elusive when McGrath embarked on his career, a top-six finish at the Eastern Interscholastic Championships has become commonplace as McGrath ventures toward college waters. The Fords' growth into an elite program is emblematic of an era of ascendancy for the private school programs in Delco.

"I couldn't have imagined three cups in my four years here,' said the All-Delco McGrath, who'll swim next season at Lehigh. "I'm just really proud of the program and where it's gotten and where it's going to be in the next couple of years.'

In the four years prior to McGrath's time at Haverford School, the Fords' finishes at their culminating meet read ninth, 12th, seventh and ninth. Since, they've rattled off finishes of seventh, fifth, third and fifth, including the only three trophy-garnering, top-six finishes in program history.

While some of the surge is due to the variable field and changing face of the meet — including the exclusion of the Catholic League schools after they joined the PIAA in 2008 — the event remains the premier competition among private schools on the East Coast and one of the fastest high school meets in the nation. From that landscape, the Fords have carved out a formidable niche.

The same is true of their main rival. Episcopal Academy's senior class — highlighted by All-Delco's Emily Rhodes and Bernadette Tankle — depart the school having never experienced an Easterns finish lower than third in their high school seasons.

Where fifth and sixth place was once the dominion of the Churchwomen, back-to-back second-place results the last two years before this season's third-place cup have become the norm.

"To me, it just means that every single day that we got in the pool and we worked really hard,' the Colgate-bound Tankle said. "It's paying off. And that every single time the track team would have to get out before us or we'd have to get in on a snow day, that stuff is paying off.'

For McGrath, it isn't the hardware or the accolades that define the strides made by the program. It's something more pervasive every day at practice, something more ineffable.

"I never really think about that when I walk by (the trophy case),' McGrath said. "It's more when we're in the pool practicing that I notice that and really think about it.'

McGrath's appraisal of his performance and his past couldn't avoid a look to the future, which is bright all around the county.

Delaware County athletes not only won both diving competitions — with Episcopal Academy's Josh Owsiany demolishing a county record and Agnes Irwin's Marin Bloise a clerical error away from one — but they also took third in both courtesy of Andrew Owsiany and Kara Madey of EA. All four are underclassmen.

The loss of Tankle and Rhodes, the county-record holder in the 100 butterfly, are major losses, but the vast majority of EA's talent returns next season. Arguably the three fastest swimmers on Episcopal's boys team — juniors Waylon Jin and Cullen McShane and sophomore Ben Baturka — are also back.

Even for Notre Dame (thanks to sophomore Kaitlin Perni and freshman Michaela McGeary) and Agnes Irwin (Freshman Riley Flick), the majority of point scorers were underclassmen. And the meet was also a rare showcase of talented middle schoolers, with Agnes Irwin's Maddie Aguirre and Episcopal's Ivan Puskovitch making finals as seventh-graders.

Then there's Haverford School, where McGrath was the team's only senior point scorer Saturday. Juniors Luke Ryan and Ben Nelligan, sophomore Matt Haigh, freshman Charlie Ryan and eighth-grade phenom Alex Boratto all return next season to build on the legacy of success.

"It's a young team now, and they're really, really hard workers, harder than anyone else who's been on this team before,' McGrath said. "I'm happy leaving knowing that they're only going to get better from here.'

That realization is about the only thing that makes leaving easier.