State swimming preview: Can SoHi end its state title drought?

Soldotna swimming and diving coach Lucas Petersen’s strategy for his girls team may seem a bit presumptive at first, but after seeing it come to fruition two years in a row, it’s hard to knock his plan.

By training his girls swimmers to peak at the region meet, instead of the state championships a week later, Petersen has helped deliver two consecutive Region III team titles for SoHi. Last week in Kodiak, the Stars claimed the championship by a scant four points, beating Colony 81 points to 77.

With the slim margin of error, Saturday’s final day of competition had him sweating it out until the end.

“After (Friday) prelims, my most optimistic scenario had us up by one point,” Petersen said via phone in Juneau, where this weekend’s state meet is being held.

“During the (region) meet, I knew we had to gain one point, and I knew we would have a good shot at winning the last relay.”

As it turned out, the final race of the day, the girls 400-yard freestyle relay, turned out to swing the crown in favor of the Stars, who finished second to pick up the necessary points. Colony was third.

Petersen said that relay team was only one second off the girls school record in the event.

“I’m really proud of the girls,” he said. “The whole team too, but they swam great and did everything they needed to do in the prelims to set themselves up in their finals.”

Petersen said that while a state team title may be out of reach for the SoHi girls this weekend in Juneau, he still believes the Stars can finish as the top team from Region III.

Sydney Juliussen claimed the region title in the girls 50-yard freestyle, but is seeded seventh on the statewide level in the event for state. Portia Padilla also took an individual region victory for SoHi in the girls 100 backstroke event, but is ranked eighth in the state heading into this weekend.

On the boys side, Petersen said Soldotna is looking for a top-four team finish, and will need big days from his big guns to make it happen.

“We have some kids with college aspirations, so this meet means a lot for the next four years,” he said.

Overall, there were 14 athletes from SoHi that qualified to state, including five of six possible relays.

A quartet of seniors will be blazing the path for the SoHi boys, led by Cody Watkins, who Petersen said could become the first swimmer from Soldotna to win an individual state crown in 13 years, when Abby Kiffmeyer won the girls 100 backstroke and 100 butterfly in 2003.

“He’s sitting in good position,” Petersen said. “He looked really good at regions, his stroke looked powerful. I think he can drop some time.”

Watkins enters the meet ranked first in the 100-yard butterfly and second in the 50 freestyle, and will also be attempting to break both school records in the two events.

Jacob Creglow is seeded second among state contenders in the boys 100 breaststroke, and Jacob Hall is seeded third in the 500 freestyle and sixth in the 200 free. Petersen said Hall is gunning for the school record in the long event, which to his memory is about 4 minutes, 49 seconds. Hall’s current personal best is a 4:52.

Kylin Welch is ranked fifth among state divers, which Petersen said puts him in medal contention if he can uncork a big dive. Welch is also competing in two relays, the boys 200 medley and 200 freestyle relays.

As for the Kenai Central swim team, coach Judy Lallier was most concerned with getting the three competitors that qualified to state to Juneau on time. The Kardinals were faced with several delays last week en route to the Region III meet in Kodiak, as their final flight from Anchorage to Kodiak was delayed due to fog.

It left the region swimmers a bit uneasy, as preliminaries were scheduled for the next day.

“We stayed positive and kept the kids upbeat,” Lallier said. “We might have been worried about it, but they didn’t show it.”

Ultimately, they made it in time, but with a flight to Juneau this week, Lallier had the Kards there by Wednesday.

The leading candidates to make a state final for Kenai rest in the hands of butterfly specialist Hunter Reese, who enters the weekend ninth among boys in the 100 butterfly, and Mikaela Pitsch, who is seeded fourth in girls diving.

Lallier said the Kenai boys 200-yard medley relay broke the school record in that event last weekend at the Region III meet with a time of 1:44.97, a mark that had stood for 11 years. The team of Savaii Heaven, Eric Kempf, Trevor Bagley and Reese combined for the accomplishment.

Heaven is also ranked 10th individually in the boys 100 backstroke and 12th in the 100 free.

Pitsch finished eighth as state a year ago, but has been amongst the best this season. Pitsch won the Valley Invite diving three weeks ago, beating close competitor Eileen Cyr of Colony by several points.

However, Cyr took her revenge at the Region III meet last week, beating Pitsch by a mere 3.10 points. Lallier said she’s noticed the improvement by Pitsch this year.

“I think she’s a lot stronger this year, both physically and mentally,” Lallier said. “We’re hoping she’s on task this weekend.”

Lallier credited the addition of 2011 Kenai graduate Winter Heaven, a former state champion for the Kards, in bringing up the level of competition at Kenai over the past season.

“We started out with a real small team, so the kids got a lot more personal attention, and bringing Winter on board was such a great, wonderful addition,” she said. “He fit in well with the dynamics with the team.”

The Homer Mariners state swim team is sending four athletes off to state, with senior Lauren Kuhns as their best hopes of an individual medal. Kuhns won the girls 500 freestyle at the Region III meet, and is ranked second in the state in the event, almost five seconds shy of the leading time.

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