The stakes are always highest with pressure on the line, and for the Soldotna girls swimming and diving team, the pressure will certainly be high this weekend.
As winners of the last two Region III swimming and diving girls championships, the Stars will need a day of season best efforts to retain their title this weekend at Palmer High School, site of the 2017 championships.
The meet started Thursday with diving preliminaries and continues today with preliminaries for all events. Saturday will be the big day with finals for all events.
Soldotna just barely beat Colony at last year’s region meet by four points, and at the most recent meet involving Region III teams at Palmer two weeks ago, SoHi was knocked down to fifth, but just 20 points behind meet winners Kodiak.
“We have a great chance, but there’s always stiff competition,” said SoHi head coach Angie Brennan. “But that’s the whole reason we compete.”
Brennan took over the SoHi swim program this year after a couple seasons as an assistant under Lucas Petersen. With Kodiak head coach John Lindquist heading into his final region meet with the Bears, Brennan said the opposing Kodiak girls will be swimming with a lot of fight.
“They are pretty determined to sweep it,” she said. “There’s that whole motivation to do that.”
Two weeks ago at the Palmer Invitational, Kodiak swept the team competition, perhaps making the Bears the favorites to pull off the double.
With Kodiak out of the picture, the SoHi girls and Kenai Central boys were able to win team titles at the Kenai Invitational in mid-September.
Kenai Central head coach Winter Heaven said that the big dogs in the conference have traditionally mixed and matched relay teams to find the biggest points hauls, which has led to unexpected results at times.
“It’s a little trickier to say on the girls side,” Heaven said. “I wouldn’t be surprised to see Soldotna come up there and use it as a training meet.
“It’s more up in the air. There’s less depth on any one team, but there’s definitely some star swimmers.”
Region III is often considered one of the toughest conferences to compete in, and much of that is owed to the presence of Kodiak.
“We’re faster than Fairbanks (Region VI) and comparable to Anchorage (Region IV),” said Brennan.
Seward coach Meghan O’Leary believes the Homer girls team will be one to watch this weekend. Having observed from afar, O’Leary said while the Mariners may still be one year out from truly contending for a team title, the group seems to be stocked with young talent.
“I would put my faith in Homer,” O’Leary said. “I was watching them at Palmer, that was fun to watch those Homer girls race.”
Homer girls placed third in Palmer with 56 points, while Kodiak won with 73. Mariners head coach Thad Gunther believes that while a team championship may be just a bit too far of a reach this season, 2018 could harbor some big expectations.
“It probably won’t happen this year, but it’s maybe something to look toward next year perhaps,” he said.
The SoHi girls had claimed six straight region crowns from 1999 to 2004, but Kodiak posted their own impressive streak, winning eight straight from 2007 through 2014.
The Kodiak boys are on a current nine-year streak of Region III team championships, partly owed to the emergence of current senior Talon Lindquist, and it doesn’t appear that streak is in jeopardy. The Bears won the Palmer Invite with 106 points, far ahead of runner-up Colony’s 61, so a decade sweep is likely.
“Talon Lindquist is a pretty special swimmer,” Gunther said. “He’s by far one of the best swimmers in Alaska, maybe in Alaska history. It’s great to have our kids watch him and see how dedicated and focused he is.”
Having competed in the current Kodiak era of dominance himself, Heaven said the Bears make life tough for opposing teams with an unparalleled depth, and if any foe is ready to take the Bears down, they will need to rely on a wave of incoming talent.
“Colony’s probably the next in line to win it,” Heaven said. “But Kodiak always swims smart. I don’t see an upset this year.”
Kenai boys finished third, but were far behind team champion Kodiak 106 to 45. Still, the Kardinals were the top-placing peninsula team.
The following is a guide to what to expect this weekend:
The SoHi girls won their second straight region crown in 2016 with three individual event wins and qualified all three relays to state.
Two weeks ago in Palmer, junior Sydney Juliussen picked up the Stars’ lone win in the girls 50-yard freestyle, which she will be swimming again, along with the 100 free. Senior Portia Padilla will take on the 100 backstroke and 100 butterfly, the former of which she is seeded second.
Junior Kortney Birch will be looking for points in the girls 200 free and 500 free races, and junior Zeina Abouelkheir, an Egyptian foreign exchange student, will compete in the same events. Abouelkheir is seeded second in the 500 free.
Additionally, junior Darby McMillan will swim the 200 individual medley and 100 backstroke and sophomore Katie Creglow will swim the 100 breaststroke and 100 fly, the former of which she is seeded fourth in the region.
Brennan is hoping to gain the most out of the relays. A strong four-member team can make the difference in a close team race.
“We’re just going to have to go off our training,” Brennan said. “We’re pretty strong in our dry land training.”
Brennan said the 200 medley and 400 free relays are the Stars’ best hopes.
Last year in the boys race, the Stars finished second behind Kodiak, but a large chunk of talented seniors graduated in the spring, so the group is looking for personal records this weekend.
“They’re definitely going to have to work for it,” Brennan said.
Among the top expected points scorers are Ethan Evans, who is seeded sixth for the ultra-competitive boys 50 free, and will also race in the 100 free. Senior Caleb Frederickson will work for points in the 100 breaststroke and 100 butterfly, senior Connor Gross will race in the 500 free, where he is seeded fourth, and Will Gross is seeded seventh in the 100 backstroke to round out the top contenders.
Coach Heaven is hoping to build off Region III finishes of fourth for the boys and sixth for the girls in 2016. He will be taking 14 swimmers with him to Palmer.
Heaven, a five-time individual region champion in his heyday at SoHi and Kenai, said he has been pleased at the improvement of his smaller squad of swimmers, who have shown flashes of brilliance against bigger schools.
“They’ve honestly surprised me with how well they’ve done to this point,” Heaven said.
At this year’s Palmer Invite, Hunter Reese won the 100 butterfly to lead the Kardinal boys to a top peninsula finish of third in the team standings.
Heaven added that his boys 400 free relay broke the Kenai school record in that event at Palmer. With a time of 3:27.85, the four-member squad of Hunter Reese, Owen Rolph, Trevor Bagley and Savaii Heaven barely eclipsed the old time by .03 seconds.
Heaven said the accomplishment could spell big things for the Kenai boys this weekend.
“It was exciting, especially considering they weren’t rested for that meet,” he said. “We weren’t expecting our best times. … We’re setting ourselves up for regions.”
Reese, a sophomore, represents Kenai’s best hopes in an individual title with runs in the 400 free and 200 IM.
“I’d like to place well, but it’s not really the big goal,” Heaven said. “We hope four guys make it individually.”
With a young group of female swimmers, Heaven said he isn’t expecting a top team performance at regions, but individual showings could hold some potential.
After losing a chunk of points from graduated senior Mikaela Pitsch, one of the top divers in the region the past four years, the Kenai girls will look to freshmen Riley Reese in the shorter 50 and 100 freestyle events and Rachel Pitsch — the younger sister of Mikaela — in the longer 500 free.
With three of the six girls being freshmen, Heaven said he hopes the squad uses this weekend’s meet as a learning tool.
“We’re still lacking the experience that a lot of these older girls have,” he said.
Last year, the Homer girls were fifth while the boys finished eighth in the final team standings at the Region III meet.
At the Palmer meet this year, the girls were third and the boys placed sixth.
The story of the meet that weekend was freshman Madison Story, who won both the girls 200 IM and the 100 breaststroke, while teaming up with Alia Bales, Ella Blanton-Yourkowski and Adeline Berry to win the 200 freestyle relay and the 200 medley relay. The latter relay had Chloe Bechtol in for Berry.
Gunther said it would be “awesome” to have nine swimmers qualify to state between a pair of relay teams and two divers.
“(Story) should definitely be focused on this weekend,” he said. “We’re looking to get her in good position to qualify for the state meet.
“It’s pretty cool to see a freshman have success and not be afraid of the older girls.”
After Homer lost senior Lauren Kuhns, a 500 free talent, to graduation last spring, the Mariners have been lucky to receive an injection of talent in Story and several other underclassmen. Story will swim in the same four events she did at Palmer, and Gunther said the expectation is to win.
Gunther added that the girls 200 medley relay is gunning for a school record, which currently sits at 1:56.4. Gunther said the quartet of Story, Bechtol, Bales and Blanton-Yourkowski currently have a time just four-tenths of a second off that record.
Bales, the only state returner, will swim in the 50 and 100 free events, along with Blanton-Yourkowski.
Bechtol, the lone senior girl on the team, is prepared to go in the 100 backstroke and help in the 200 medley relay, while Berry is swimming the 100 butterfly or 200 IM, depending on strength of each race.
On the boys side, Gunther is hoping to get a relay qualified to state, and perhaps a contingent of four boys individually.
Gunther said Homer’s best contenders should be Clayton Arndt in the boys 100 backstroke and 100 free, Jakob Nelson in the 100 butterfly, Teddy Handley in the 100 butterfly and 200 IM, and the lone senior Griffin Downey in the 100 breaststroke and 200 IM.
The Homer dive team will bring a pair of divers in senior Spencer Warren, who was just out of the running last year, and junior Annalyn Brown, who went to state last year.
In bringing eight swimmers total to the Region III meet, O’Leary said she is hoping to see season bests out of all her swimmers.
“We’ve been tapering, working on fine-tuning,” O’Leary said. “And staying healthy. That seems to be the challenge this time of year.”
Among the top contenders from Seward is sophomore Connor Spanos, who was the lone region placer last year with a sixth-place finish in the boys 100 butterfly. Spanos will swim that same event along with the 200 IM.
“He was really trying to make it to state last year, and we kind of used the Palmer Invite as our snapshot of what regions is like,” said O’Leary. “It’s not always super accurate, but you can kind of get an idea.”
Spanos was third in the 100 fly at the Palmer meet, so there is a chance of a state spot for him, either on an upset win or qualifying time.
“He’s moved up quite a bit,” O’Leary added. “Once you get there, in the moment, you have that race adrenaline, that can mean a lot.”
The Seward girls will be looking to find the finals in Palmer this weekend. O’Leary said freshmen Lucy Hankins and Kylie Mullaly represent the Seahawks’ best hopes, with Hankins in the 100 fly and 200 IM and Mullaly in the 200 free and 100 breaststroke.