The last time a swimmer or diver from the Kenai Peninsula won a state title is 2013, when Homer diver Kasey Brinster came out on top.
The last peninsula swimmer to touch first at a state meet is Homer’s Richard Ginter in the 50-yard freestyle in 2011.
And the last central peninsula swimmer to stand on the top podium at state is Kenai Central’s Winter Heaven, who won the 200 freestyle and 100 butterfly in 2010. Seward’s Ryan O’Leary also doubled in the 50 and 100 freestyles that year.
But as athletes around the peninsula prepare to plunge into the 2016 swimming and diving season, there are signs of a peninsula resurgence.
Last season, the Soldotna girls team was able to snap Kodiak’s run of eight straight years atop Region III.
And while the Bears, whose boys have worn the Region III crown seven straight times, always present a formidable obstacle, the Stars girls will be in contention to build on their first region title since 2004, when the program finished off a run of six straight years on top of the region.
“We lost a couple girls, but we’ll see if the young girls step up and start scoring points for us, too,” said Soldotna coach Lucas Petersen, now in his fifth year. “The majority of the girls are still there, so it’s still a pretty young team on the girls side.”
The Soldotna boys program also gives the peninsula a great shot at breaking the state drought in the form of senior Cody Watkins, who was second in the 50 freestyle and 100 butterfly at state last year.
But what really has central peninsula head coaches Petersen and Judy Lallier of Kenai Central feeling good is all the talent flowing into the high schools from the club ranks of the Soldotna Silver Salmon and Peninsula Piranhas.
“This bunch we have now is probably the most cohesive freshman, sophomore and junior group I’ve had,” Petersen said of his girls. “They’ve all grown up through club swimming and now they’re all in high school.
“It’s going to be fun to see what they can do the next couple of years.”
Lallier, who recently was selected to the Minnesota Swimming Hall of Fame, also is excited about the state of the Peninsula Piranhas club.
But what’s really got her excited is how well the Piranhas and Silver Salmon are working together to create great swimmers. Lallier actually does coaching for both clubs.
“I’m so proud of the way we are working with our competitors on the peninsula,” Lallier said. “Of course, when they go to high school season, they have to represent their school and be tough for their team.
“But in the offseason we’re doing a great job of working together.”
In Homer, Will Roedl also is trying to bring stability to the talent pipeline after a lot of turnover in the high school head coaching position in recent years.
Roedl said he is committed to the long haul, and added new assistant Anne Love and diving coach Dalton Warren are in the same boat.
Roedl also said he is working well with Thaddeus Gunther, the head coach of the Kachemak Swim Club.
“I worked a lot with the club coach in town over the winter,” Roedl said. “We have the same vision for swimming in Homer.
“That enables swimmers to swim year-round and let’s him prepare swimmers to know what to expect when they get to high school.”
The season opens today at 3 p.m. at Kenai Central, when the Kards host Seward in a dual meet. Soldotna also will be in Kodiak today and Saturday for a dual meet. Homer will be doing the Homer Triathlon on Saturday, which serves as a fundraiser for swimming and diving.
The following is a closer look at the peninsula’s swim and dive programs:
Roedl said the program is headed in the right direction.
“We have a much bigger incoming freshman class than we did last year,” he said. “We’re moving in the right direction, but we’re still in a building year.”
Senior Lauren Kuhns returns for the Mariners after winning regions in the 500 freestyle and also qualifying for state in the 200 freestyle.
Diver Rhythm Beckett-Cook also returns after qualifying for state as a freshman.
“We’ve got quite a few who can score points and go to state,” Roedl said. “It all depends on what they decide to put into it throughout the year.”
He said two names to keep an eye on are diver Spencer Warren and swimmer Kane Graham.
“We’ve got a big freshman class this year,” Roedl said. “They’re all very raw, but they have the ability to be formidable swimmers if they stick with it.”
Kenai Central Kardinals
Lallier, who has 19 out this year, is in her seventh year with the Kardinals. For most of that time, she was a co-coach with Will Hubler, but this year Lallier is the head coach and Winter Heaven returns to Kenai to serve as an assistant.
“It’s amazing to add him to our program,” Lallier said. “Him and I have worked together for many years and believe in the same philosophy and swimming perspectives.”
The Kardinals return all three state qualifiers.
Senior Mikaela Pitsch was eighth in diving and Lallier said she did several training camps in the Lower 48 this summer.
“She’s extremely focused for regions and state,” Lallier said.
Sophomore Savaii Heaven went to state in the 100 breaststroke, while junior Hunter Reese made the trip in the 200 freestyle.
“Those two are our leaders,” Lallier said. “They both are right on point for their training levels.”
Lallier also is looking forward to seeing what senior Eric Kempf does in breaststroke, what sophomore Faith Ivy does in freestyle and breaststroke, what freshman Trevor Bagley does in breaststroke and freestyle, what junior Zion Alioto does in distance freestyle, and what senior Jessi McDonald does in IM and freestyle.
“We have a lot of young swimmers that are capable of stepping up this year,” Lallier said.
Meghan O’Leary takes over the Seahawks this year. Seward will be coming to the meet in Kenai today with five swimmers.
Petersen has 35 swimmers out for the team. On the girls side, Petersen is looking for the youth movement to help with the loss of Claire McElroy and Emily Boone.
The Stars do return junior Portia Padilla, who qualified individually at state in the 100 butterfly and 100 backstroke, and junior Rachel Davidson, who swam at state in the 100 backstroke.
Sophomore Sydney Juliussen also went to state in the 50 and 500 freestyles, while sophomores Darby McMillan and Madelyn Brennan swam at state in the freestyle relays.
Sophomore Kortney Birch did not swim at state, but Petersen said the freestyle swimmer is being counted on to step up this year.
Petersen said key freshmen will be Katie Creglow in the breaststroke, Alex Juliussen in the freestyle and backstroke, and Ryann Cannava in the freestyle.
“I’ve been around these girls for a few years waiting for them to get up,” Petersen said. “I think we can have another great year if we all coalesce around each other.”
While Petersen expects his girls to compete for the region crown, he said his boys do not have the depth to bring Kodiak’s reign to an end.
But the boys do have the potential to snap another drought. SoHi hasn’t taken a state title since Abby Kiffmeyer won the 100 butterfly and 100 backstroke in 2003.
The best bet to break the drought is Watkins.
“He finished second to a (graduated) senior in the 50 free,” Petersen said. “He’s going to be out for some fast swims this year. He’s pursued that through the offseason with his work ethic.”
Watkins joined David Hall, Jacob Hall and Jacob Creglow on the state-qualifying 200 and 400 free relays. The only one of that group to graduate is David Hall.
Jacob Hall, a junior, was third in the 500 free and fifth in the 200 free at state, while Creglow, also a junior, was fourth in the 200 individual medley and fifth in the 100 breaststroke.
Sophomore Kylan Welch also was fifth at state in diving.
“He should be better than ever,” Petersen said. “He should be competing for one of the top spots at state.”
Amazingly, with just five qualifiers, the SoHi boys still finished third at state last season.