The level of domination the Kodiak swimming and diving teams have exacted on Northern Lights Conference opponents in recent years can feel overwhelming at times.
The Kodiak girls have won seven straight region crowns while the boys have won five in a row. And at the state level, three state records have been set in the past four years by a Kodiak swimmer.
“If I was a betting man, I’d go with Kodiak,” said Kenai head coach Will Hubler.
But if there is any team that may hold a shot at dethroning the Bears, it may be the Soldotna Stars.
The Stars came the closest to Kodiak at the Palmer Invitational two weeks ago. While the SoHi boys finished a distant runner-up to Kodiak, the margin of victory between the Kodiak and Soldotna girls was much slimmer — 88.5 points to 67 between the two schools.
So does that mean the gap has shrunk?
“There’s always a chance,” said Soldotna coach Lucas Petersen. “I’ve told my girls team, (Kodiak is) competitive … but you never know, two points here and two point there, there’s always a chance.”
Petersen acknowledged that things would have to go perfectly for his girls squad to have a chance to take the gold at the NLC meet, held today and Saturday at Soldotna High School.
But a glance at the past proves it is within the realm of possibility. Petersen brought up the 2002 state meet, when the Soldotna girls emerged victorious in two of the three relay races, which gave SoHi enough points to claim the overall state title by two points over Service, which suffered a disqualification in one of the events.
This weekend, Petersen said he’ll be keeping close track of the points, but no matter the situation, he will have his team competing hard for personal bests.
“When I was in college, my coach would say you either stay where you’re at, or you move up in races,” Petersen said.
The general consensus among local coaches is that Kodiak has a fair shot to grab another region title among the NLC teams, but the Colony boys and Soldotna girls hold the keys to an upset.
“I’m excited to watch the boys, I think Kodiak and Colony have great squads, and they’re always faster than you expect,” Petersen said. “Everyone puts their A game on.”
“My money’s still on Kodiak, but I think they’ll get a good run for their money,” Hubler added.
Diving and swimming preliminaries begin today at 1 p.m., and finals for all events begin 1 p.m. Saturday. The winner of each race earns an automatic spot at the state meet, and the next 12 fastest times in the state will fill the remaining spots.
Hubler said his Kards have been slowly tapering after a strong season of hard work, which he hopes will translate to season bests at the right time.
“Each athlete is a little different,” Hubler said. “Whether they’re a distance swimmer or sprint swimmer, they practice and taper differently.”
At last year’s region meet at Kenai Central High School, the Kards finished sixth on the boys side and seventh among girls.
Hubler said the team’s goals is to have everyone swimming their personal bests. At the Palmer Invite two weeks ago, the Kenai boys finished seventh and the Kenai girls placed eighth.
“We have some strong kids,” Hubler said. “We expect to have at least four or five go to state, and a couple other ones could squeak in too.”
A trio of athletes lead the state hopefuls for Kenai. On the boys side is senior Josh Peck, who is swimming the 500-yard freestyle and the 100 butterfly. At the SoHi Pentathlon in mid-September, Peck finished 11th to place third among Peninsula swimmers.
The top Kenai girls are senior Celestina Castro, swimming the 200 freestyle and 100 butterfly, and sophomore Mikaela Pitsch, an adept diver. Castro finished 12th overall at the SoHi Pentathlon.
Hubler also added that senior Kirsten Nyquist could get to state in the breaststroke.
Petersen said as much as his team enjoys the chance to travel to other meets, he enjoys the chance to host the region meet at SoHi.
It’s a perfect opportunity to win a team title as well.
“We’ll be resting down, the kids are a little antsy,” Petersen said. “They’ve put in a good season, and I hope to continue the trend. I hope everyone drops a little more time.”
Last year at the region meet, the SoHi boys placed second while the girls were third. Petersen said he hopes to see both teams finish in the top two at this year’s meet. He would also like to see at least eight to 10 swimmers qualify to state, along with four relays.
“The girls race is a little tighter,” he said. “Our girls might be competitive with Kodiak, but if something goes our way, it could put us ahead.”
Senior Alex Weeks leads the charge, competing in the 50 and 100 freestyle races — both events in which she holds the SoHi school record. Weeks’ biggest competition will be the same as it’s been for the last three years, Kodiak senior Ila Hughes.
“I think their races are great,” Petersen said. “That could be the difference maker for us.”
Weeks beat Hughes by a half-second in the girls 100 free at the Palmer Invite, but Hughes has gotten the better of Weeks each year at the region and state meets.
In addition to Weeks, senior Megan English harbors state hopes in the 100 butterfly and 100 backstroke events, and senior Rachel Henry will add depth in the distance events, competing in the 500 freestyle and 100 breaststroke. Henry was a state finalist last year in the 100 breaststroke.
All three seniors were a part of last year’s region champion 200-yard medley relay team.
On the boys side, Petersen said junior David Hall has looked strong in the sprint freestyle events. Hall won the boys 50 free at Palmer earlier this season.
Hall’s sophomore brother, Jacob, also will be swimming in the freestyle events, albeit the longer ones. Jacob finished second and third, respectively, in the boys 200 and 500 freestyle races in Palmer.
Two more sophomores make up a solid unit of SoHi boys. Jacob Creglow will be swimming the 200 IM and 100 breaststroke, while Cody Watkins will compete in the 50 free and 100 butterfly events. Watkins led all Peninsula swimmers at the SoHi Pentathlon earlier this year, finishing sixth overall. Creglow was eighth overall.
Scott Smith enters his first region meet as head coach of the Mariners, and said since the Palmer Invite, he’s been happy with the results his team has produced.
“I think we’ve had a good three weeks and everyone is swimming well,” Smith said. “With the practices we’ve seen, we’re improving every week. I think there’s absolutely a lot of room for improvement still.”
Smith said fourth place is the goal for the Homer boys, while the girls side will be looking more at individual results.
The Mariners finished tied for fourth with Lathrop in the boys standings at Palmer two weeks ago, led by a third-place result in the boys 200 medley relay.
At the same meet, junior Ren Carrol took fourth in the boys 1-meter diving event, and Smith said Carrol should be a strong contender to pick up points again this weekend. Ian Paul is another junior diver that could grab points and positions.
Among the swimmers, junior Greg Smith will compete in the boys 100 backstroke and 50 free, while sophomore Remi Nagle will swim the 50 free and 100 fly. Nagle took fifth place in the boys 100 fly at Palmer, and at the SoHi Pentathlon finished 16th.
Leo Castellani and Griffin Downey should add further depth, as Downey took fifth place in the boys 200 IM at Palmer and 21st at the SoHi pentathlon, while Castellani was 29th in the Pentathlon.
Smith said there are currently five girls swimming for Homer, two of which took up the sport this year, so inexperience and lack of numbers has led to the athletes looking for personal bests.
At the end of the day, Smith said the biggest joy he gets is seeing the hard work and effort from the entire season produce results at the end-of-year meets.
“What I’ve found fulfilling is that you gotta take these guys through the intense early season,” Smith said. “We had to erase the muscle memory of bad habits, and as they came out of that, they got into the max stage of aerobic building capacity.
“That’s when they started swimming well. That’s a reward for me, watching them improving and then applying that to races.”
The Seward girls finished last year off with a fourth-place result at the region swim meet.
Earlier this year, Seward coach Emilee Sawyer said senior Sasha Hamner plans on getting to the state meet this year. Hamner is the only cog remaining from last year’s state-bound girls 200 medley and 200 freestyle relay squads.
Hamner took sixth in the girls 100 free at Palmer, and finished 14th overall at the SoHi Pentathlon earlier in the year.