When the state’s top high school swimmers and divers meet November 6 and 7 at the Bartlett High pool in Anchorage for the season-ending state meet, the picture of championship hopefuls will be much clearer.
Until then, it is a rat race to see who — if anyone — can bring down the mighty Kodiak Bears.
The chase begins in earnest today with a tri-meet at Kenai Central High School that will include the Soldotna and Seward swim teams. The diving competition begins at 2:30 p.m. and racing at 4:30 p.m.
Kodiak has won eight straight girls Region III team championships, while the boys have won six consecutive. At the 2014 state meet, both Kodiak teams placed second, scantily behind the Juneau girls and the Dimond boys.
At the Region III meet last November in the Soldotna pool, Kodiak took six region records, but three of them went to seniors Ila Hughes and Tahna Lindquist, who have since graduated. Lindquist was also named Region III swimmer of the year, and week later was awarded outstanding girls swimmer of the state meet.
With two of their best swimmers gone, the time for a girls team to step up and challenge the Bears may be now.
“That was a great class, probably one of the better girls classes I’ve seen,” said Soldotna coach Lucas Petersen. “That state meet was really great.”
Unfortunately, Petersen’s Stars are going through a transitional phase as well, as top talent Alex Weeks departed in the spring as a senior, along with Megan English and Rachel Henry. All three were state qualifiers.
So the question is, which team can reload the fastest?
“Kodiak and SoHi graduated some kids, but you never know with the freshman coming in how strong they’ll be back,” said Seward coach Emilee Sawyer.
“I don’t think anyone will beat them,” added Kenai coach Judy Lallier, referring to Kodiak.
On the boys side, Kodiak’s Talon Lindquist returns for his sophomore season, a year after dominating two events; the 200-meter individual medley and the 100 backstroke. Talon set the state record in both events last year. Petersen said Lindquist is one of the best young swimmers he’s seen in quite a while, perhaps ever, in the state of Alaska.
“Undoubtedly, I’d put him up there with anybody I’ve seen come through,” Petersen said. “He may not be the fastest in every event, but as an overall swimmer, he’s definitely one of the best.”
The good news is that Soldotna returns all of its state swimmers from a year ago. The bad news is that Colony is back and ready to challenge the region’s best. The Knights edged the Stars for second by three points at the region meet (68-65), and repeated the feat for sixth place by four points at st ate (39-35).
“They have a good young group of boys,” Petersen said about Colony. “Plus, we always expect Kodiak to be a really solid team. You can never count them out.”
The Kardinals may have a say in matters as well. Lallier said she is excited to see an increase in diving numbers on the boys side, which will be coached by former Kenai diver Cole Gross, state runner-up in 2013.
“That is some great news for us,” Lallier said. “Cole is working with them really well.”
The following is a breakdown of what local squads are expecting in the coming weeks:
In his fourth year as head coach of the team he made his name with at the turn of the millennium, Petersen is bringing no less enthusiasm to the pool each day than when he was a competitor himself.
“We expect to be up towards the top this year,” he said. “The girls have knocked down four school records since I’ve been here, so hopefully the boys can knock some down this year.”
Weeks, Henry and English propelled the SoHi girls to a sixth-place result at state last year, which came on the heels of a runner-up finish to Kodiak at the Region III meet. Weeks scored a pair of third-place finishes at state, with English and Henry scored top-eight finishes.
“Those three were kind of our big three, so we definitely lost some big scorers,” Petersen said. “Fortunately other teams had some great seniors too.
“But it’s gonna be hard to see Ila, Tahna or Alex not there.”
With 35 athletes on the current roster, however, Petersen has renewed optimism for another banner year.
A senior class that includes captain Isabelle Henry (Rachel’s sister), Clair McElroy and Emily Boone return to lead the ship, while sophomores Portia Padilla and Rachel Davidson will look to build on strong freshman seasons. Petersen said Henry has decided to give diving a go this year, and has thus far turned heads as an agile diver, giving Petersen regrets of not starting her in the diving program sooner.
A quartet of freshman, which include Sydney Juliussen, Darby McMillan, Madelyn Brennan and Kortney Birch, have made the jump from club swimming to the high school team and will help reload the SoHi scoring roster.
Among the leading boys contenders are seniors David Hall and Nathaniel Lazarus and a trio of juniors that include Jacob Hall, Cody Watkins and Jacob Creglow. The elder Hall sibling took fourth in the 50 free at state last year, and all three junior swimmers are freestyle specialists.
“We lost a couple key seniors, but our main core is returning,” Petersen said.
KENAI CENTRAL KARDINALS
The lone state qualifier from Kenai in 2014 — junior Mikaela Pitsch — returns, and she will likely have company this year.
Coach Judy Lallier, who will once again be joined by Will Hubler in guiding the Kardinals, said the squad graduated a heavy class of seniors, but a new and emerging group of swimmers and divers are making waves.
Lallier said the team has incorporated more dry land training, including running, in order to promote greater camaraderie and team unity, as well as establish a solid aerobic base.
“I think it’s really helping our team,” she said. “Team unity is super important, and I hope that will show in our swimming.”
If that isn’t enough, the Kards have sporadically been joined by Kenai swimming great Winter Heaven, whom Lallier said has used the Kenai pool in recent days to keep up his training after competing at the FINA World Championships in Kazan, Russia, representing American Samoa. Heaven is a 2011 graduate of Kenai that made his mark by winning state titles in the 200 free and the 100 fly. Lallier said Heaven hopes to compete at the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.
Heaven’s younger brother, Savaii, is part of a rising freshman class that Lallier is excited to see compete in the backstroke and sprint freestyle races. Heaven will be joined by sophomore sprinter Hunter Reese, sophomore Zion Alito, and junior breaststroker Eric Kemps.
Lallier also said junior Keyshawn McEnerney has joined the dive squad with surprising ability.
“I think he’s is gonna do amazing things in diving,” Lallier said.
Among girls divers, Pitsch capped her sophomore campaign in 2014 with a sixth-place finish at the state meet, and Lallier said Pitsch attended dive camps in Iowa and put in a great number of hours this summer to improve with hopes of placing high at regions and state.
“She’s spot on, doing really well,” Lallier said.
McKinley Sorhus and Maddie Michaud lead the senior class, while sophomore Jessie Anna McDonald and freshmen Olivia Brewer and Faith Ivy will also be great additions, says Lallier.
The Kenai coach said she would like to see multiple swimmers make the cut to state, but more importantly, consistent improvement remains the bottom line.
“We would like to see PRs out of every swimmer,” Lallier said. “We want to see them grow as people and team members and be supportive of each other and themselves.”
Second-year head coach Emilee Sawyer already has more swimmers on her squad than all of last year.
With nine on the current roster, and harboring hopes of ending with 12, Sawyer is balancing a crew of returners and upstarts.
“Some are here just to get in shape, some said it was something fun to do after school, and others said they wanna shave time off their events,” Sawyer said. “I’d be happy with solid strong PR times when we get to regions.”
Sawyer stressed that the important goal laid out for the Seahawks is to enjoy the sport and not burn out on it.
“I’m not going to bark at them all year, I do that enough at home with my own kids,” she quipped.
The biggest loss for Seward was senior Sasha Hamner, a freestyle specialist that graduated in the spring. Hamner finished fifth in the girls 100 free at last year’s Region III meet.
However, Hamner’s sister Elena is one of a few returning for Seward, along with junior Hope Quinn and sophomore Megan Koster. Freshmen duo Megan Molly and Laurel Correa will round out a solid girls team.
The Seward boys team will expand from one to four this year. Junior Roma Hamner is the lone returner.
The Homer boys tied with Valdez for fourth in the Region III team standings last year, a result they hope to build on.
Among the leading swimmers on the boys side last year was Remi Nagle, a butterfly and freestyle swimmer, while Lauren Kuhns led the Homer girls with two region-placing swims last year in the 200 and 500 freestyle events.