Last year at this time, the talk was that Lydia Jacoby is coming.
This year, the Seward sophomore has most certainly arrived.
Jacoby took the Kenai Peninsula, Northern Lights Conference and state swimming scene by storm last season, with ripples felt all the way on the national level.
She was named the NLC Female Athlete of the Year after winning the 100-yard breaststroke and 200 individual medley at the conference meet, breaking the conference record in the breaststroke in the process.
At state, Jacoby repeated her feat, taking Outstanding Female athlete, plus the 100 breaststroke and 200 IM — the first Seward state titles since 2010. Jacoby also set a new state record in the 100 breaststroke, no surprise since she had surpassed that record twice during the season. State records can only be broken at the state meet.
Then in December at the USA Swimming Winter Nationals in Greensboro, North Carolina, Jacoby punched her ticket to the U.S. Olympic qualifying trials in 2020 in the 100 breaststroke by swimming 1 minute, 10.45 seconds, topping the qualifying standard of 1:10.99.
In early August, things got even more intense when Jacoby won the 100 breast at the 2019 Speedo Junior National Championships at Stanford University in California with a time of 1:08.12. That’s about four seconds off the world record of 1:04.13.
“Her accomplishments speak for themselves,” Seward coach Meghan O’Leary said. “What’s really amazing is her swimming makes people look at Alaska swimming in general. When you have athletes compete at those levels it brings the whole field of competition up.”
Caleb Miller, in his first season as the head coach at Homer, agrees. Miller moved here from the Cayman Islands, where he was a club and national coach for the past seven years. The Cayman Islands have a population of about 65,000.
“I’ve been around the block,” he said. “I’ve had a couple kids at worlds and Youth Olympics.”
Miller said putting swimmers like Jacoby and Homer junior Madison Story, fifth at state last season in the IM, in the mix helps everybody.
“In my experience, the higher the level of competition, the more the kids rise to the occasion,” Miller said. “Having the Madison Stories in the region to shoot for and chew on helps elevate the level of competition. Even though the Cayman Islands were small, the swimming group was very competitive.”
O’Leary said she didn’t even train Jacoby or senior Connor Spanos, fourth at state in the 100 butterfly at state last season, this summer. She just tells them what to swim and they do it on their own.
“It shows talent can come from anywhere,” Soldotna head coach Angie Brennan said. “If you’re from a small town, you’ve just got to put the work into it.”
Kenai Central head coach Winter Heaven also said Jacoby’s personality makes her even more powerful.
“She’s friendly,” he said. “I know a couple of my kids are friends with her and that helps motivate them.”
While the coaches are unanimous on thumbs up for Jacoby, none were willing to venture much of a guess on who will win the conference until some major meets happen. The first major meet is Saturday’s Homer Invitational.
Last season, the Kodiak boys won a 10th straight NLC title, while the Palmer girls upset the apple cart with their first title in 29 years. Kodiak and SoHi had won all the girls titles since 2007, with the Bears taking nine crowns.
The following is a closer look at the Kenai Peninsula’s swimming programs:
Miller originally moved to Homer to take the club swimming position, but when the high school job opened up, he took that, too. He has 20 swimmers out for the team.
The girls team will be led by juniors Madison Story, Ella Blanton-Yourkowski, Adeline Berry and Kaylin Anderson.
Story, Blanton-Yourkowski and Berry were on the 200 freestyle relay that finished fourth at state and set a Homer school record in the process. Anderson teamed with Berry and Story to take fifth in the 200 medley relay.
Berry also finished eighth in the 200 freestyle and qualified for state in the 100 butterfly, while Story was fifth in the 200 IM and Anderson qualified for state in the 100 backstroke.
The girls squad gets additional depth from Hartley Miller, Delta Fabich and Sailey Rhodes, who were all at state last year as relay alternates.
“My expectation is there is a lot of room for growth,” Miller said of the girls squad. “They have the capability to be really good, but how good they’ll be depends on how much work and effort they put in, in the pool to succeed.”
The boys team lost a lot to graduation and is left with four or five swimmers. Sophomore Skyler Rodriguez, who was part of a 200 freestyle relay team that finished sixth at state, has the best chance of returning to state, according to Miller.
“We have some newer boys coming in, but in terms of state they are a year or two out,” he said.
Kenai Central Kardinals
Heaven and assistant Maddie Jamora are both in their third year and have 25 out for the teams. That’s up a bit, Heaven said, because of a strong feeder program.
The boys were second at the conference meet last season and took some losses to graduation, but still return plenty.
“We’ve got a lot of strong swimmers on the guys side still,” Heaven said. “We could make a run at state with a couple of relay teams.”
The 200 medley relay and 200 free relay were both fifth at state last season. Senior Trevor Bagley was on the medley relay, sophomore Koda Poulin was on the freestyle relay, and juniors Owen Rolph and Sorin Sorensen were on both relays.
A 400 freestyle relay that finished seventh had senior captain Dominic Alioto, as well as Bagley and Poulin.
Rolph also made state finals in the 100 butterfly and qualified for state in the 200 free, while Poulin made state in the 200 free and 500 free. Sorensen made state in the 50 free, while Bagley made it in the 100 breaststroke.
Heaven also said Alioto has been training year-round and should do really well in the 200 IM at the conference meet. Senior Aiden Huff also joined the team a bit late but has been making great progress.
The girls feature state returners in juniors Riley Reese and Rachael Pitsch. Reese made it in the 100 free, and Heaven said Reese’s breaststroke also is improving. Pitsch made it in the 500 free, and Heaven said distance swims are definitely Pitsch’s specialty.
The coach also said junior captain Julia Anderson could push for state in the 100 butterfly. Anderson also excels in the 50 free and 200 free.
Jacoby isn’t the only good swimming news in Seward, where O’Leary has 13 out for the team in her third year at the helm thanks to a solid group of club swimmers that have hit high school.
“I love high school swimming,” O’Leary said. “It’s so much fun for everybody.”
The coach expects a hard summer of work to pay off for Spanos, who won the 100 butterfly at the region meet. Spanos was fourth in the event at state last season and wants to be on the podium this year.
“He was kind of sick at last year’s state meet and still did phenomenally well,” O’Leary said.
The Seward boys team also gets depth from senior John Moriarty in the freestyle, backstroke and possibly butterfly, senior Hunter Hollingsworth in the backstroke, sophomore Peter Spanos in sprint freestyle, sophomore Gavin Foote in freestyle and breaststroke, freshman Paxton Hill in butterfly and sprint freestyle, freshman Jackson Bird in distance events and freshman Hunter Fry in a variety of strokes.
All the swimmers will make it possible for O’Leary to field multiple relays on the boys side. Relays can be rare at Seward, which last had a girls relay qualify for state in 2011 and a boys relay qualify in 2010.
The girls also should be able to put together a relay with Jacoby, senior Maddi Moore, junior Kylie Mullaly and sophomore Wren Dougherty. Moore does the breaststroke and freestyle, Mullaly does the breaststroke and mid-distance freestyle, and Dougherty is a well-rounded swimmer who does the 200 freestyle.
In her third year as head coach, Brennan has about 27 out for the team. She is being helped by assistant Loren Reese and also is extremely happy to have landed Brent Boots as diving coach. Former diving coach Dennis Reger had retired after last season after helping 2019 graduate Kylin Welch win NLC and state diving titles.
Brennan said she originally thought she would not have a diving program, but some athletes expressed interest in diving, so she was able to find a coach. Brennan also is happy to have ended up with 27 on the team.
“We lost 10 seniors and I didn’t know what was going to happen,” she said. “We’ve got some kids from swim club, and some other kids showed up who wanted to swim. It’s a good group of kids.”
The SoHi girls will be led by seniors Katie Creglow and Alex Juliussen, junior Madelyn Barkman and sophomore Madison Snyder.
Creglow made state in the 100 breaststroke last season. Juliussen was on a 400 freestyle relay team that finished sixth, while Snyder qualified for state in the 200 IM and 500 free after winning the NLC title in the 500 free. Barkman made state in the 50 freestyle, was on the 400 freestyle relay that finished sixth, and was on the 200 freestyle relay that finished eighth.
Brennan said other contributions should come from senior Rachel Spence in backstroke and freestyle, senior Esther Frederickson in distance events, junior Deloma Watkins in IM and freestyle, sophomore Naomi Frederickson in freestyle and freshman Tirzah Frederickson in breaststroke and distance events.
Junior Ethan Evans returns to lead the boys team. He finished fourth in the 50 freestyle and fifth in the 100 butterfly last season.
The Stars then have a group of swimmers that will make a relay possible. Senior David Grinestaff does freestyle, junior Nathan Pitka does freestyle sprints, junior Kody Van Dyke does freestyle and wants to improve his butterfly, junior Foster Boze is interested in swimming and diving, and sophomore Atticus Gibson also is a sprinter.
“I just love swimmers,” Brennan said. “They’re just hard workers. They come in and they grind, and they like it.”