In the moments after the final race of the day at last weekend’s Northern Lights Conference swim meet, Kenai Central head coach Winter Heaven and assistant Maddie Jamora quickly moved to break down the meet as hosts of the event and meet with the team.
It wasn’t until later that they found out the Kenai boys had won the NLC crown, a first for the boys program in school history.
“I wasn’t keeping track of the score,” Heaven said. “I was trying to enjoy the moment.”
The moment was made possible by two relay wins, along with a handful of individual podium finishes. It also helped that the Colony Knights had a relay disqualified, which was enough to help the Kardinals win by 11 points.
With their first region championship in hand, the Kardinals now turn their attention to the Alaska state swimming and diving championships, held today and Saturday at the Bartlett pool in Anchorage. Preliminary races begin Friday while Saturday’s finals start at 1 p.m.
Heaven said learning that the region title was the first for the Kenai boys team was just the cherry on top of a solid effort.
“To hear that is definitely a landmark victory,” he said. “I’m really proud of the guys, I’m proud of how they were able to put together good races.”
The Kenai boys have raced to finishes of sixth and fifth in the last two years at state, and with the Dimond boys and girls continuing to dominate the pool — the Lynx swept the Cook Inlet Conference titles last weekend for a 10th straight year — the Kardinals’ shot at a state title may be dim at best.
But Heaven said there is still individual glory to shoot for, with five boys swimmers qualified for two races each. Sorin Sorensen is seeded for the 50 free and 100 backstroke races, while teammate Trevor Bagley is in the 200 IM and 100 breaststroke, Koda Poulin is in the 500 freestyle (after finished second at the region meet) and 200 free, Owen Rolph is in the 50 free and 100 fly and Dominic Alioto made it in the 200 IM and 100 free.
Sorensen, Bagley, Poulin and Rolph combined to win the boys 200-yard medley relay at regions, and their time seeded them second-best in the state.
The Kenai girls are led by Rachael Pitsch in the 500 free, whose time of 5:37.81 was seeded 12th-best in the state. Eagle River’s McKenzie Fazio leads the way in 2019 with a 5:16.61.
There are other peninsula teams looking for some podium hardware as well. SoHi qualified 12 swimmers to state, many of whom are on the two relays, the girls 200 and 400 freestyle relays.
Last year, Soldotna its first state crown in 15 years with the boys diving gold going to senior Kylin Welch, and while the Stars diving program was grateful to end the streak, there’s still the little detail of SoHi not winning a race title in 16 years, dating back to Abby Kiffmeyer’s double gold in the 2003 girls 100-yard butterfly and backstroke races.
SoHi’s best shot at a state championship likely will be junior Ethan Evans, the 2019 NLC Male Swimmer of the Year. Evans is seeded second in the 50 free after winning the region title in 21.59 seconds, but he’ll need a big day to knock off Service’s Brian Jarupakorn, who holds a 20.83 time.
Evans is also seeded second in the 100 breaststroke with a time of 58.30 seconds, while Service’s Tavner Wisdom is ahead at 58.03, in a race that Evans only began competing in this year. Evans said he is targeting a state title in the breaststroke and a school record in the 50 free.
After last weekend’s region meet, head coach Angie Brennan said she has high hopes for Evans.
“I think he has the potential to win at state,” she said. “It’s definitely on his radar.”
The peninsula is also expected to be well-represented in the girls 200 IM. Homer junior Madison Story and Seward sophomore Lydia Jacoby enter state with the two best 200 IM times of 2019 — Story leads the way at 2:10.19 while Jacoby is right behind at 2:10.37. The third-fastest time this year is Dimond’s Dreamer Kowatch, who posted a 2:12.80 last week at the Cook Inlet Conference meet.
A win by Story would be the first state title for a Homer athlete in six years (Kace Brinster won the 2013 boys diving title), the first for swimming in particular in eight years (Richard Ginter won the boys 50 free in 2011), and the first for Homer girls in 26 years (Corrise Bittner won the girls 100 backstroke in 1993).
Like last week, it’ll likely come down to Story and Jacoby. Homer head coach Caleb Miller believes the two are ready for another heavyweight bout in the pool this weekend.
“I think Madison’s swum a good race, and we didn’t really rest for regions for her,” Miller said. “We spent this week getting her rested and ready to go. She’s focused, and she’s done all the things we need to do. Hopefully she can get in and get that race.”
Seward head coach Meghan O’Leary said after last weekend’s region meet that Jacoby is working to peak for a potential national meet in December, as well as next summer’s U.S. Olympic qualifying trials in Nebraska, but that doesn’t mean she won’t be working to break her own state record in the breaststroke.
“Those are her own records now that she’s breaking,” O’Leary said.
Jacoby’s region-winning time of 1:01.93 in the breaststroke is by far the fastest in the state this year (Story is second at 1:06.42) and would break Jacoby’s own state record she set last year as a freshman. Jacoby said her lifetime best in the event is 1:00.41 at the Speedo Sectionals last year in Seattle.
Seward also qualified senior Connor Spanos in the 100 butterfly. Spanos has a potential podium in his sights, seeded fourth with a Seward school record of 53.47 seconds in the butterfly.
The Homer girls, who finished third in the NLC team race last week, also qualified Adeline Berry in the girls 100 fly and 50 free, as well as Ella Blanton-Yourkowski in the 100 backstroke. Miller said both stand a good shot at placing.