Top swimmers gather for state championships

Crimson Bears,Falcons look to slow down Dimond Lynx, Kodiak Bears
Thunder Mountain's Taylor Beardslee, Juneau-Douglas' Haley Mertz, Ketchikan's Ella Sherill and Petersburg's Shania Dahlberg are shown at the start of the women's 200 free relay during the Region V Championships last weekend at the Dimond Park Aquatic Center.

Juneau-Douglas High School senior Haley Mertz is in a dream.


“It is amazing having state in Juneau for my senior year,” Mertz said. “It is really nice to be able to relax the night before, because when we are in Anchorage we are in a hotel. It is nice to be able to sleep in our own beds.”

Mertz will be swimming the 200 free and 100 back, the two events she swam at state her freshman year. As a sophomore and junior she swam the 200 IM at 100 back at state.

“I am excited,” Mertz said. “Dimond and Kodiak are definitely going to be our big competition but hopefully we will come out of the weekend on top. That is all I want out of state because that has been our goal since the beginning of the season.”

Last Saturday, for the fourth straight season, the Dimond High School Lynx swim and dive team swept the Region IV Cook Inlet Conference team titles. The Lynx boys are the four-time defending state champions and the girls were runners-up last season.

“I think our swimmers are pretty self-driven and self-motivated,” Dimond coach Scott O’Brien said. “I think they know what is at stake and they are pretty excited and ready to go. It is going to be close. There are a lot of good girls teams and good boys teams out there.”

Traveling this far is something the Lynx are not used to.

“This is the first time we have really traveled,” O’Brien said. “It is kind of exciting. It is going to be a different thing for the kids. How to get people out to dinner and that kind of stuff will be new for us. As long as we swim fast everyone will be happy.”

The Lynx return last season’s state 100 breast champ Kari Wray (1:06.80), 100 fly champ Jenny Wilcox (57.64), and Thomas Monaghan is the sole returning member of their 200 free champs (1:29.19), the Lynx also won last year’s 400 free (3:14.86).

“This is pretty important,” Dimond senior Kari Wray. “I would really like to be able to pull a third time.”

“I think swimming is something that you have to have a body type for and you have to be driven,” Wray said. “In practices you can either do it or you can’t. If you don’t come to practice you get out of shape.”

Wray started swimming at age five with the Valdez Swim Team and continued through a move to Anchorage three years later as a member of the Aura Swim Team.

“Once I started I just couldn’t stop,” Wray said. “It takes a lot of time to practice and work hard and it is very time consuming but it is something I love.”

Fairbanks’ West Valley swept the boys and girls titles for the fifth straight year in the Mid Alaska Region VI Swim and Dive Championships.

“It goes back to hard work,” West Valley coach Bryan Mitchell said. “I tell them on the first day of practice we will be working hard every day. If we do that then good things will happen. We have a system in place and the kids know what to expect. We have no excuses; we just grind it out every day and that is a hard thing to do. The philosophy we preach is work hard first and every thing else will follows after that.”

The Wolfpack’s main meet of every year, in as far as seeing the fastest swimmers in the state, is the Bartlett Invitational or the state championships. The trip to state in Juneau is welcome competition.

“A lot of my kids don’t swim year-round,” Mitchell, a Lathrop High School graduate said. “When I was in school we would come down once a year. I loved it. I made all my big meet times there at the old Augustus Brown Pool. I have never been inside the new one and neither have 99 percent of my kids. But they are all excited because it is not Anchorage and it is a level playing field for everyone. It is out of everyone’s comfort zone.”

While most state swim enthusiasts know the Anchorage hotels and routines, the Southeast venue will be a lifetime experience for many.

“I told our kids this is going to be a fun trip,” Mitchell said. “It is going to be a different trip than we have normally taken and that is not always a bad thing.”

For West Valley senior Richard Chen, the Region VI 100 and 200 free champion, this will be his fourth state tournament. He will also be in the 200 and 400 free relays.

“This really reflects all the hard work we have put in as a team,” Chen said. “It really shows how much we believe in each others ability. I think the biggest misconception about swimming is people think it is easy. They don’t get to see all our hard work, just how effortlessly swimmers look in the water.”

Chen is one of the 99 percent who have not been to the Capital City.

“I think it is going to be pretty fun,” Chen said. “I don’t think Juneau gets as much attention as it should. All my friends that have been there said it is really awesome. That it is warm and has good food. I am excited.”

West Valley junior Cassidy Heaton, the 200 and 500 free champ, is on her third state trip. She will also swim the 200 and 400 relays.

“It means a lot,” Heaton said. “It is just a great accomplishment and it is very exciting and full of energy and it is nice swimming against fast people. I feel really used to the longer swims now because I have been swimming since I was little. I just take it one race at a time.”

Heaton has also never been to Juneau.

“I am really excited,” Heaton said. “I look forward to just having a great time there.”

Kodiak swept their Northern Lights Region III titles, the girls for the seventh straight time and the boys their fifth in a row. Kodiak is the two-time defending girls state champion and return with last season’s Outstanding State Swimmer, Tahna Lindquist who won the 200 IM (2:06.63) and 500 free (4:57.06), events she hopes to win for the third straight year.

The Bears also return Ila Hughes, one of only two girls who set a new state record in the championships last year, going 50.62 in the 100 free. Hughes also won the 50 free (23.65). She will be pushing for her third straight state titles in those swims.

The other girl to set a state record last championships was Kodiak’s Jorie Lindquist in the 200 free (1:55.87), her second state title in that event. This trio also were part of the Bears state championship 200 (1:36.58) and 400 free relays (3:31.96).

Dimond, West Valley, and Kodiak will be among the 25 schools represented at the Dimond Park Aquatic Center on Friday and Saturday. They all will attempt to do something that has never been done before in the history of Alaska high school swimming… win a state championship in Juneau. This is the first year the meet has been held outside Anchorage since 1983.

Roughly 307 swimmers and divers from Bartlett, Chugiak, Colony, Craig, Dimond, Eagle River, Homer, Hutchison, Kenai, Ketchikan, Kodiak, Lathrop, North Pole, Palmer, Petersburg, Service, Seward, Soldotna, South Anchorage, Thunder Mountain, West Anchorage, West Valley, and Valdez will take on the Southeast Conference Region V champion Juneau-Douglas Crimson Bears girls and Sitka boys as individuals and teams look for a state title.

The JDHS girls return three members of their state championship 200 medley relay: Haley Mertz, Dakota Isaak and Ciera Kelly.

The Crimson Bears girls have won team championships in 1983, 2005, ‘06 and ’07. The JDHS boys have won in 1984, 2004 and ’08.

Sitka returns double state champion Louis Belley. Voted last season’s state championship men’s Outstanding Swimmer, Belley won the 200 IM (1:55.30) and the 100 back (52.56) and was a member of the 200 medley relay state championship team (1:38.91), which also returns RJ Miller and Spencer Combs. The Sitka boys have been state runners-up the last two seasons and have state titles from 2005 and ’06.

Bellay was edged out at the Region V championships by Thunder Mountain’s Kenny Fox in the IM (both swimmers were two-seconds slower than that time) but won the back with 53.89. The slower times are actually normal as most athletes were tapering last weekend to hit their best swims at the state venue.

Fox is the returning state champion in the 100 fly (52.25); he swam a 51.53 to win regions last weekend.

“I feel like I have a good chance to place as well as I did last year,” Fox said. “I am just going to try and do the best that I can, just go hard all the way. It is definitely nice for our home town to have the meet. It is really nice to just sleep in my own bed and see my whole family and friends at the swims.”

Other returning state champions include Petersburg’s Abel Auelbach in the 50 free (21.85) and 100 free (47.74). Auelbach won regions in the 50 (22.01) just ahead of TMHS’ Thane Reishus-O’Brien (22.04) and Craig’s Micah Stickwan (22.98) and the 100 (48.16) ahead of Vikings teammate Vincent Kowalski (49.28) and Sitka’s Combs (49.96).

“It is just amazing,” Haley Mertz said. “I think this year our girls team has gotten the closest towards one another than any other season. So it is just really cool to be going to state with my best friends basically. It will be really fun.”

Swim preliminaries begin today at the Dimond Park Aquatic Center at 10:10 a.m. Diving preliminaries begin at 1:30 p.m. Complete schedule is on page B3.


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