The top of the Northern Lights Conference swimming and diving scene received a shakeup last fall when the Palmer girls raced to the team title for the first time in 29 years.
That accomplishment knocked out a string of 11 straight girls NLC crowns won by Kodiak and Soldotna, and now that that’s been done, who’s to say that the same can’t be done on the boys side?
The Kodiak Bears have racked up 10 straight boys team championships, but change could be in the air. Two weeks ago, Colony swept the team titles at the Palmer Invitational, which was a de facto preview for the NLC championship meet this weekend, which runs Friday and Saturday at Kenai Central High School.
Each region champion across the state of Alaska qualified for the big dance, while the next 12 fastest times in the state also make the cut, putting an emphasis on swimming fast, even if an individual victory is out of the cards.
At the Palmer Invite, the defending girls region champions Palmer finished a distant third to Colony, while the Kodiak girls took second.
The Homer girls hung with the region’s top teams last year en route to a third-place team finish, and then brought back the bulk of the point scorers this season.
While Homer didn’t race at the recent Palmer Invite, Mariners head coach Caleb Miller said that was by design.
“We’ve been very strategic in planning our season,” Miller said. “We’ve gone to the meets we want to go to, and we have lot of depth this year with potential scorers to put us in position to do very well. I think we’ve seeded a very good meet.”
Miller carries a lot of optimism into the region meet because of the versatility of the Homer girls team.
“Colony’s significantly larger than our program, but having just two events per swimmer puts us in good position,” Miller explained. “It plays into our hands for a smaller program, because only the top six can score points.”
The Soldotna girls also enter this weekend with an eye on the team title. SoHi last won the NLC team title in 2016, when the Stars went back-to-back. Since then, SoHi has consecutive runner-up finishes in the girls team race.
At the Palmer Invite, the Stars finished fourth with less than half the points of Colony, making for an uncertain weekend ahead for the Stars.
The 2019 campaign has seen the growth of SoHi’s top point scorers, namely senior Katie Creglow in 100-yard breaststroke and 100-yard butterfly, where she finished top five in both events at Palmer, as well as sophomore Madison Snyder, who finished second in the 500 freestyle two weeks ago. Snyder is the reigning NLC champ in the 500.
SoHi also could see a big points haul from junior Madelyn Barkman, who finished in the top three in both the 50 and 100 freestyle events at Palmer.
On the boys side, SoHi’s biggest points scorer in 2019 has consistently been junior Ethan Evans, who won the 50 free at the Palmer Invite and finished second in the 100 breaststroke, setting him up for a potentially big region meet.
As host of the meet, the Kenai Central boys could also have a say in who wins the team title. The Kardinals finished second in the team race last year, but a distant second to Kodiak. This year, Kenai raced to a third-place finish at the Palmer Invite.
Among the contenders this year, Kenai has gotten points hauls from sophomore Koda Poulin, who won the 500 free at Palmer, Jackson Krug in the 100 free and junior Owen Rolph in the 50 free. Krug won the 100 free at Palmer while Rolph nabbed silver in the 50 free.
The Kenai girls carry a potential region champion in junior Rachael Pitsch who won the 500 free at Palmer and was a state qualifier in the distance race last year.
The Kenai boys and girls also finished second in both 200 medley relays at Palmer, setting up a potential showdown with Colony this weekend.
Also looking to turn in some fast times in the pool is Seward sophomore Lydia Jacoby, who will be looking to defend her region titles in the 100 breaststroke and the 200 IM.
Seward head coach Meghan O’Leary said it’ll be hard for anyone to keep up with Jacoby in the breaststroke, which is her bread and butter, but the 200 IM is another story.
“I think the 200 IM will be a toss-up,” O’Leary said. “There’s Madison (Story), and I think Lydia talks with Maddy, sees if she’s doing the 200 IM.”
Last year, Jacoby destroyed the girls NLC breaststroke record with a time of 1:03.05 that slashed 2.68 seconds off the previous mark from 2010. Jacoby went on to also set the Alaska breaststroke record at the state meet with a 1:03.11, but O’Leary said this weekend’s races will need to fit in with the young star’s development toward next summer.
“It kind of depends on where we’re at in our training cycle,” O’Leary said. “To be honest, we’re not super focused on regions for her, she’s got bigger meets in the future.”
The big prize meet Jacoby has her eyes on is the U.S. Olympic qualifying trials next June in Omaha, Nebraska, but O’Leary added that Jacoby may also swim at Junior Nationals in December.
“I know she’ll want to break her region record and state record again,” O’Leary said. “We’ve just got to practice racing fast.”
Jacoby will have company from her teammates this weekend, as O’Leary expects strong swims from junior Kylie Mullaly in the girls 100 breaststroke and 200 free, as well as sophomore Wren Dougherty in the 200 free and 100 fly. O’Leary said both swimmers could make the finals for the NLC meet.
The Seward boys will see the final region showing from senior Connor Spanos, who is the defending region champion in the 100 fly. Spanos won the event at the Palmer Invite, and O’Leary said he is trying for the Seward 100 fly school record, which is currently owned by 2010 Seward grad Ryan O’Leary, the younger brother of Meghan.
Ryan O’Leary’s school record is 53.65 seconds, and Spanos’ best time last year at the state meet was 53.97. Coach O’Leary said Spanos has raced into the 54-second range this year, but she expects a breakout from him this weekend. Spanos will also swim the boys 50 free.
Also from the boys team is Seward senior Hunter Hollingsworth, who O’Leary said has a shot at making state in the 50 free.
“He’s kind of come out of nowhere this season and has dropped time like crazy,” she said. “I put the notion in his head he can qualify for state.”
The Seahawks are also looking to get at least one boys relay to state with the 400 free and 200 free relays. The last Seward boys relay to compete at state was 2011.
Another team shooting for some fast relays are the Homer Mariners, and Miller said the girls team relays could carry the Mariners to the championship. Miller said team title expectations for the Homer girls team are high because the Mariners have a lot of points-scoring potential spread out among the various events.
The biggest point haul could come from junior Madison Story in the girls 200 IM and 100 breaststroke. Miller acknowledged that Story will have a huge task in trying to beat Jacoby from Seward in the IM event, as the two are very evenly matched in that race. At last year’s region meet, Jacoby won the 200 IM by 3.5 seconds over Story, but Story has lowered her PR in the event as recently as the Bartlett/Chugiak Swimming Diving Invite three weeks ago.
“Madison’s going to be a really big points scorer,” Miller said. “She’s one of the only girls in the entire state that could be ranked in the top 15 in every event. It doesn’t matter what it is. She has enough versatility to go around.”
Miller said the competition between Story and Jacoby, who are good friends out of the pool, should be close.
“(Jacoby) is a phenomenal swimmer and there’s a lot of respect there, but we come here trying to swim our races and win our stuff,” Miller said.
The Homer girls should also see point scorers in junior Adeline Berry in the 100 fly, while three girls could make for a packed field in the 50 freestyle in Berry, Ella Blanton-Yourkowski and sophomore Delta Fabich.
Miller said he hopes to get points in the girls backstroke from Blanton-Yourkowski and Kaylin Anderson.
While the Homer boys do not have enough depth to contend for the team title, Miller said he’s looking for a strong meet from sophomore Skyler Rodriguez, who could place in the 100 free and 100 fly events.
“He’s been continually improving all season long,” Miller said.