There is a small sense of change in the air in swimming circles.
While the traditional powerhouses of the Region III swimming and diving scene probably aren’t going anywhere soon, some fresh faces are expected to make appearances this year.
Faces such as Kenai team captains Savaii Heaven and Mickinzie Ticknor, Homer sophomore Madison Story and Seward freshman Lydia Jacoby. All enter the 2018 swim season with high hopes to topple the big guns at the state and region level, and coaches predict it will be exciting to watch.
“The region is wide open,” said Homer head coach Thad Gunther. “Right now it’s whoever wants to work the hardest and take the opportunity.
“I think there’s going to be a resetting of the pecking order in the state.”
Last year, the Kodiak swim teams swept the Region III team titles, with the Soldotna girls finishing second and the Kenai boys third. Both finished sixth at state a week later to lead the peninsula schools.
The coaching retirement of Kodiak’s John Lindquist has left whispers in the swim community as to how it’ll affect the strength of the program, but most foresee the Bears continuing to dominate.
Kenai head coach Winter Heaven noted that Kodiak could see another challenge from the SoHi in the girls season race.
“I know (SoHi has) got a lot of seniors this year, they’re an older and more experienced team,” Heaven said. “I could see them doing good things, and Seward’s got a couple of strong kids.”
SoHi head coach Angie Brennan confirmed Heaven’s suspicions last weekend when her Stars team pulled off a dominant team victory at the Homer Quad meet.
“I think that’s pretty cool, because we have a pretty good girls team,” Brennan said. “We have a lot of depth in that team, and a couple freshmen that are looking pretty promising.”
Seward head coach Meghan O’Leary also tabbed Kodiak to take its usual contender status, but warned about the strength of the Homer girls, which feature Story, a sophomore standout. Story qualified for state in the girls 100 breaststroke in 2017 after finishing second in the event at regions.
However, one swimmer generating a lot of interest is Jacoby. O’Leary predicted Story’s speed in the 100 breaststroke will be challenged by Jacoby.
“We’re keeping an eye on Madison Story,” O’Leary said. “I like the competition.”
Gunther said the type of competition O’Leary referenced is coming from the younger stars, the incoming freshmen and sophomores that are making waves as they improve their skills.
Brennan said the youth movement is finally here after forecasting it for several years.
“There’s definitely ripples of, ‘Oh no, Lydia Jacoby is here,’” Brennan said.
With the rise in young talent comes a changing of the guard. Can peninsula teams rise to the top? The following is closer look at each program:
Meghan O’Leary returns for her third year as head coach of the high school team, but has been with the club program for the previous six seasons. O’Leary said she is happy to have 12 athletes competing on her largest team yet.
Jacoby confirmed rival coaches’ suspicions Friday at the Homer Quad meet with a win in the girls 100-yard backstroke.
In addition to her prowess in the breaststroke, Jacoby could also score points in the medley and backstroke events.
“We’re trying to get her other strokes up to speed to have a second event,” O’Leary said.
O’Leary has worked with Jacoby for six years in the club program, and said it is no surprise to her that the frosh is making waves already.
“She has a lot of drive, she independently trains when the team isn’t training,” O’Leary said. “She loves the sport and puts her all into it, and has a great work ethic.”
Joining Jacoby on the Seward girls is senior Megan Mullaly, who O’Leary said may not swim this season due to knee surgery. Mullaly’s sophomore sister, Kylie, also returns as a distance ace who can also do sprint events.
The Seward boys got one point out of their lone state qualifier, Connor Spanos, last year in the 100-yard butterfly. Spanos is back as a junior in 2018, and O’Leary believes he will return to the state meet.
“It looks promising,” she said. “(The state) had a lot of senior boys graduate from that event, so he’s probably going to be ranked fairly high.”
O’Leary said the team welcomes in a few more male swimmers, which will buoy the relays. Spanos’ freshman brother, Peter, comes aboard this year, as does fellow frosh Gavin Foote.
The boys returning cast also includes junior Hunter Hollingsworth as a backstroker and sprint freestyler, and junior John Moriarty.
Heaven returns for his second go-round as Kenai head coach, and said he has 21 athletes out for the team this year.
Back with assistant coach Maddie Janora, Heaven said he hopes to see the team make strides this year.
“I like to think we’ve improved,” Heaven said. “We try to keep things fun and interesting. We have them work hard, give them stuff they can manage and digest.”
Heaven said he brings back 11 returners from last year, with three seniors in the program — Peter Anderson, Savaii Heaven and Mickinzie Ticknor.
Last year at state, Savaii Heaven ended up breaking his older brothers’ school record in the 100 backstroke, which helped him net a third-place at the season-ending meet.
“You break them so they can be broken again,” coach Heaven said. “It’s cool that it was him. You’ll get no real complaints from me.”
That helped the Kenai boys team finish the year strong, with a third-place run at the Region III meet preceding a sixth-place showing at state.
One state qualifier graduated, but Heaven said all others return. The Kenai Central boys 200-yard medley relay took third at state, a team that returns three out of four in Heaven, juniors Owen Rolph and Trevor Bagley.
Heaven said he also sees a bright future for incoming freshman Koda Poulin, who will step up and fill the vacant spots in the relays. Heaven picked Poulin as a distance swimmer, and will challenge the field in the 200 IM and 500 free events.
“He thrives at distance,” Heaven said. “He’s got a great work ethic, a good kid. He knows how to compete.”
Heaven added the different disciplines the boys team excels in will help Kenai in meets with a spread in the points haul.
On the girls side, Heaven said the team is much younger and less experienced. Ticknor leads the way and “can do it all,” but will see a lot of time in the 100 backstroke.
Joining Ticknor are sophomores Rachel Pitsch, a distance ace; Riley Reese, a sprinter; Julia Anderson and Grace Morrow. Heaven said he hopes to see his girls 200- and 400-yard freestyle relays show strong.
Gunther returns with assistants Hannah Gunther and Jaclyn Arndt with a team of about 20 athletes, which has him optimistic about the season.
“We’re doing more of a dryland routine this year,” he said. “The high school season is more of a sprint, so we’re really taking that to heart.”
Gunther said setting the athletes up for a healthy future is as important as what happens in the pool this year.
“We’ve had good team bonding experiences with the Colony (Invite),” Gunther said. “We’ve been sleeping on the floor and traveling together. It’s one of those fun things.”
Gunther said the Mariners sport a swollen freshmen class, particularly on the girls side.
The lone senior is returning member Alia Bales, who qualified to state last year in the 50 freestyle and was a key cog of the 200 freestyle relay that finished fourth at state with a school record time. Bales was joined by Story, Ella Blanton-Yourkowski and Adeline Berry to beat the old girls record by a scant .02 seconds, a new time of 1:41.84. Gunther said Bales is also a butterfly and sprint specialist.
Bales is joined by Story, whose points-scoring abilities lie in her prowess in the breaststroke. Story took bronze at state in the girls 100 breaststroke and was fifth in the 200 IM.
“She’s a really dedicated swimmer and just a great teammate,” Gunther said. “She’s helping to build her other teammates up and push them to their maximum potential. She has high aspirations for herself, and always looking at breaking a few more school records this year. We’re just making sure to set herself up for success.”
Berry and Blanton-Yourkowski both return this year as well.
Gunther said the Homer boys team is composed of all seniors with the exception of one freshman. The three returning state qualifiers are Clayton Arndt, Jake Nelson and Teddy Handley. Both Nelson and Handley were 100 butterfly qualifiers and Handley was a state swimmer in the 200 IM.
Gunther said Arndt is a sprinter who could challenge for a region podium in the freestyle races.
“They’re kind of a jack of all trades,” Gunther said.
Gunther added that Theodore Castellani is back after a year off from swimming.
“We call him the big celery,” he said with a laugh. “His parents have a farm in Homer, and he brings carrots and celery to practice every day. He’s just a happy-go-lucky guy.”
SoHi saw its run of two consecutive Region III girls titles end last year when Kodiak swept the trophies. The Stars were tied for second with Palmer, but Brennan believes the SoHi crew can return to the top step.
“I’m hoping so,” she said. “We beat the Homer girls last week (at the Homer Quad meet) and that’s after we got DQ’d on one of our swims. I think we have really good depth, all the girls.”
Brennan returns for a second year as head coach with about 30 total swimmers and an experienced, hungry group of returning state contenders.
The Stars harbor 11 seniors, eight of which are girls. Leading the way is Sydney Juliussen, who returns for her senior campaign a year after taking a silver medal in the girls 50 free at state. The result helped the Soldotna girls finish sixth in the team standings. Juliussen also won a region title in the 100 free.
“I think she can do it,” Brennan said about Juliussen’s chances of becoming SoHi’s first individual state champion since Abby Kiffmeyer in 2003. “She absolutely could. It’s all about the training and how bad do you want it.”
Juliussen has already gotten her 2018 season off to a strong start with a win in the 50 free last weekend in Homer.
Also returning as contenders are seniors Madison Snyder, who won the 500 free last weekend, Kortney Birch, Madeline Brennan (who is back from missing 2017 due to injury), Darby McMilin, Sydney Erickson and Arin Reger.
“Our seniors are definitely the group to watch for sure,” Brennan said.
Below the senior class, SoHi returns a lot of potential in junior Katie Creglow, who swims strong in the breastsroke, sophomore Madeline Barkman, who already has a win in the 100 breaststroke last weekend, junior Deloma Watkins, junior Alex Juliussen and freshmen Dea Sustaita and Madison Snyder in the butterfly.
The SoHi boys contingent finished well down the order in the state team race in 18th, but a young cast of swimmers and divers built hope for a bright future.
Brennan pointed to Jeremy Kupferschmid, Kylin Welch, Sam Skolnick and Carson Ratky as boys swimmers who could become big points scorers this year. Kupferschmid is a senior freestyler, while Evans is a sophomore who already owns a win last weekend in the 50 free.
Welch, a senior, returns after consecutive fourth-place finishes at state in boys diving in 2016 and 2017. Last year, Welch earned 436.85 points to finish fourth behind the 508.05 won by Bartlett state champ Ethan Larson. Skolnick joins Welch as primarily a diver.
The boys squad also features sophomores Kody Van Dyke and Brandon Christiansen, along with freshman Nathan Pitka, a transfer from Bethel.
Brennan said a freshman boys class will help buoy the team.
“It’s pretty cool to see it,” she said. “I’ve brought a lot of hopes with those boys. They’re looking pretty feisty, and they’re gunning for it.”