Three of the four swimming and diving programs at Kenai Peninsula high schools have new head coaches, but the new leaders are not unfamiliar.
Angie Brennan takes over at Soldotna, while Winter Heaven is the new head coach at Kenai Central and Thad Gunther has stepped up to lead Homer. In Seward, Meghan O’Leary returns for a second season.
Brennan takes over the program from Lucas Petersen, who led the Stars girls to a second straight Region III title last season, as well as guiding the boys to fourth place at state.
When Petersen stepped down, Brennan, who ran the dry-land and strength training for the Stars swimming, was the logical choice to step in. At least for everybody but Brennan.
“I heard coach Lucas resigned and I got a couple of text messages from parents saying, ‘Hey, I heard you’re going to be the new coach,’ which I thought was odd,” Brennan said. “It turned out to be the truth.”
Brennan is a personal trainer, triathlon coach and also runs a masters swimming program. She wasn’t sure she also had time to coach the Stars.
The tipping point came when Jim Barkman stepped in to help. Barkman, currently the head coach of the Soldotna Silver Salmon club team, also has plenty of high school head coaching experience in the area.
“He said, ‘I’ll do it if you do it,’” Brennan said. “I think we’re a pretty good team. We seem to do pretty good together.”
Brennan said coaching high school athletes is a lot different than coaching masters because masters don’t put in close to 3 1-2 hours a day in the pool. High school athletes do that amount of training and Barkman is used to managing that training load.
“I don’t know how to manage all that training,” Brennan said. “I could figure it out as we went along this season, but I didn’t think that would be fair to the kids.”
Heaven also knows a thing or two about managing training. As a senior at Kenai Central in 2010, Heaven won state titles in the 200-yard freestyle and 100 butterfly. He is the last central peninsula swimmer to win a state title.
Heaven served as an assistant coach last season before stepping up to take over for Judy Lallier this season.
He said he came up to help coach the Kardinals last season because his brother, junior Savaii Heaven, is on the team.
“I came up to help him, and I fell in love with coaching,” said Heaven, who also swam at the University of Utah for a few seasons.
Gunther also is a familiar name on the peninsula swim scene. He coached the high school and Kachemak Swim Club from 2006 to 2008. He returned to coach the club team two years ago, and this year steps up to lead the high school team.
“I did some other jobs around Homer and I just wanted to get back into it,” Gunther said. “They needed a coach, so I decided to do it again.”
Most of the peninsula’s swimmers and divers will be in action today at Kenai Central. Kenai, Seward and Soldotna will have full teams, and Homer will have its divers, at a meet where the racing starts at 4:30 p.m. The following is a closer look at the peninsula’s swim teams:
Gunther has about 20 swimmers out for the team, which he described as young.
The girls squad will be led by a pair of juniors who went to the state meet last season — Alia Bales in the 50 freestyle and Annalyn Brown in diving.
Gunther also said freshmen Madison Story, Adeline Berry and Ella Blanton-Yourkowski should make a difference for the girls.
On the boys side, Gunther said senior diver Spencer Warren has his sights set on state. The coach also said it would be good to see junior Clayton Arndt, who swims the 50 freestyle and 100 butterfly, make the state meet.
With juniors Teddy Handley and Jakob Nelson, and senior Griffin Downey, Gunther also would like to put some solid relay teams together.
“We’re looking to try and get a couple of relays qualified for state and as many individual swimmers as we can,” Gunther said. “They’re working hard and improving, and we’ll see where that gets us at the end of the year.”
Kenai Central Kardinals
Heaven has about 18 swimmers out for the team and described the group as a nice mix between experienced and new swimmers.
Senior Hunter Reese is the captain of the boys team. Reese finished eighth in the state in the 100 butterfly last season and also qualified for state in the 200 freestyle.
“He’s one of our club swimmers so he has been in the water all year,” Heaven said. “He’s getting better and stronger, so we’re looking to take him back to state and hopefully have him final again.”
Savaii Heaven also swims year-round. Last season he went to state in the 100 backstroke and 100 freestyle, missing the finals in each by one slot.
“He’s looking at finaling at state and breaking a couple of school records,” Winter Heaven said. “He lines up pretty well in backstroke to chase that one down.”
The coach also said school relay records are in jeopardy. Sophomore Trevor Bagley helped Heaven, Reese and graduate Eric Kempf take down the 200 medley school record last season.
With freshmen Owen Rolph and Sorin Sorensen having extensive experience at the club level, Heaven said some fast relays could come together quickly for the Kards.
The girls group is led by a pair of juniors — captain Faith Ivy and Mickinzie Ticknor.
Heaven said those two, along with senior Rylie Fields, are helping a bunch of younger swimmers to learn technique and flip turns.
“We have a big group of newer swimmers,” Heaven said.
Freshmen Riley Reese and Rachael Pitsch also bring club experience to the program.
“I’m really excited,” Heaven said. “We’ve got a group of kids eager to learn and they’ve been really helpful teaching each other and helping each other grow.”
Petersen did not leave the cupboard bare for the Stars, who have 34 swimmers in the water.
While the boys team took major hits to graduation, the girls squad has the talent in place to make a run at a third straight region crown.
“The junior and senior girls are going to be formidable,” Brennan said. “We have a pretty good girls team.
“They have depth and a lot of diverse talent. That should be pretty fun to watch.”
The Soldotna girls put all three relays at state last season, with the 200 medley taking fourth, the 400 free taking sixth and the 200 free taking eighth. All the swimmers except for one return from those relays.
Junior Sydney Juliussen also qualified in the 50 free and finished eighth, while senior Portia Padilla also qualified in the 100 butterfly, sophomore Katie Creglow also qualified in the 100 breaststroke and junior Madelyn Brennan also qualified in the 100 freestyle.
Others on those relays were junior Darby McMillan and sophomores Alex Juliussen and Ryann Cannava. Coach Brennan also said junior freestyler Kortney Birch has state potential.
“They definitely want to win it again,” Brennan said of the region title. “Their sights are set on that and they are looking great in practice.”
Last season, junior Kylin Welch joined with departed seniors to help the 200 medley relay to second in the state and the 200 free relay to fourth in the state.
Welch also qualified for state in diving, but was not able to focus on that event. This season, Brennan said Welch is focused solely on diving and some of the dives he is hitting this early in the season make him someone to watch.
The boys team also will be led by seniors Caleb Fredrickson, Will Gross and Connor Gross.