Homer’s Teddy Handley races in the boys 100-yard butterfly event at the SoHi dual meet Friday, Oct. 12, 2018 at Soldotna High School in Soldotna, Alaska. (Photo by Joey Klecka/Peninsula Clarion)

Homer’s Teddy Handley races in the boys 100-yard butterfly event at the SoHi dual meet Friday, Oct. 12, 2018 at Soldotna High School in Soldotna, Alaska. (Photo by Joey Klecka/Peninsula Clarion)

NLC swimming: Stars look to interrupt Kodiak’s dominance

This weekend at the Northern Lights Conference swimming and diving meet in Homer, it’s time to see who has put in the work. Not only during this high school season, but during the offseason and even before reaching high school as well.

Because it’s very hard to just show up for the high school swimming and diving season and qualify for the state meet.

“It shows the kids that have put the dedication and time in,” Seward coach Meghan O’Leary said. “Swimmers in the past have asked me why they have struggled to make it to state.

“It’s because everybody else is putting in hard work a lot longer, consistently, and that pays off.”

The meet began Thursday with diving preliminaries. It continues today with swimming and diving preliminaries at 10:45 a.m. and Saturday with the swimming and diving finals beginning at 11 a.m.

Off the approximately 200 athletes from 10 schools, only a few will make it to state. An individual must either win the conference meet or have one of the next best 12 times statewide. Relays must win or be in the next four statewide. Divers can be top two in the conference or the next eight statewide.

“State high school swimming is very competitive. All of those swimmers are swimming year-round,” O’Leary said of those swimmers in places like Anchorage that also factor into the state berths. “It’s hard to just swim a 13-week season and go to state.”

While exceptional height, strength, leaping ability or endurance can give athletes a leg up in many other sports, in swimming those attributes mean little unless a lot of time has been spent learning to move through the water.

“It’s different. It’s so technique-based,” Soldotna coach Angie Brennan said. “Yes, there are swimmers who started swimming pretty early and get it back pretty fast.

“But feel for the water is so important. That’s something you can only get in the pool, so it takes planning. You can’t just throw on your shoes and go for a run.”

With hard work, and not natural talent cycles, being so pivotal, programs that have great youth programs and offseason club programs can dominate.

That has been Kodiak in the Northern Lights Conference. The boys have won the last nine NLC crowns. The girls have won nine of the last 11, with Soldotna breaking through in 2015 and 2016.

While many coaches favor the Bears to repeat again, Brennan would love to hit pause again on Kodiak’s title train.

“I think our girls are my favorite to win,” Brennan said, adding the Palmer girls also are formidable. “I don’t know if the boys can pull it off, but the girls have a great chance.”

Brennan said assistant coach Jim Barkman has been pouring over times from across the conference to try and give the Stars the best chance to win the team title and advance swimmers to state. Other conference coaches have been doing the same.

For that reason, Brennan was not about to give away the events in which her swimmers will compete before the meet starts.

She did say the title push will depend on Sydney Juliussen, Madelyn Brennan, Madelyn Barkman, Madison Snyder, Kortney Birch, Alex Juliussen, Darby McMillan, Katie Creglow and Dea Sustaita.

“I think we’ve got a good, solid girls team that is going to score points as individuals as well as relays,” Brennan said. “It’s going to be really fun to watch.

“I’m hoping the taper is going well and they’re going to show up on form.”

On the boys side, Ethan Evans, Nathan Pitka, David Grinestaff, Kody Van Dyke, Brandon Christiansen and Jeremy Kupferschmid will be the key figures in trying to accumulate team points and state berths. Divers Kylin Welch and Sam Skolnick also have shown to be among the best the state has to offer.

“Our boys could pull off a really good relay,” Brennan said.

Kenai Central coach Winter Heaven said the Kardinals will leave the battle for the team title for other teams.

“The Kenai boys are just worried about best times and getting as many of our boys as possible to state,” Heaven said.

While Heaven said there is some strategy to placing swimmers in events, he said it’s no secret Savaii Heaven will race in the 100-yard backstroke, something he has done the three previous years.

Beyond that, Heaven said he has a group that should be able to challenge for state berths in many individual events and the sprint relays. The group includes Owen Rolph, Koda Poulin, Trevor Bagley and Sorin Sorensen. Coach Heaven also said senior Peter Anderson saves his best for races and could be a factor.

On the girls side, Heaven said the best chance for state berths come from Rachael Pitsch in distance events and Riley Reese in sprint events.

Homer will have the chance to chase state berths from the comfort of home.

Mariners coach Thad Gunther said it would be nice to get Clayton Arndt, Teddy Handley, Theodore Castellani and Jakob Nelson through to state in a relay or two.

On the girls side, Madison Story has the top backstroke time in the state and also is very good in the individual medley. Alia Bales is a threat in the 50 freestyle, while Adeline Berry excels in the 100 butterfly. Gunther also said the girls should be able to put together solid relays.

Gunther’s other big goal for the meet is to get his group of about nine freshmen girls and one freshman boy experience with the conference meet format.

“I’m expecting good races from them, and I’m looking for them to be a force in the future,” he said.

O’Leary will bring a group of 13 — one of the bigger teams for Seward — to her third conference meet as head coach.

“Most our of swimmers use it to see how far they have come,” O’Leary said. “Some kids started off the season not having swam all summer or in a couple of years.

“They get to see the progress as a result of all the hard work they’ve put in.”

Lydia Jacoby, just a freshman, is one of those that has put in the offseason work that it takes to make state. She has the state’s top time in the 100 breaststroke and is really good in the IM, as well. Connor Spanos also will be looking to return to state in the 100 butterfly. As for his other event? O’Leary said she will keep that to herself.

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