Cathy Tide looks younger than her early-30s, and she enjoys shocking people when she tells them she has "a dozen high school kids."
Tide's "kids" are the members of the Juneau-Douglas High School diving team she coaches, and they could play a major role in the Region V swimming and diving championships this weekend and an even bigger role in the state meet Nov. 7-8 in Anchorage.
The state meet in particular could be decided by diving, as the boys team race is shaping up to be as close as last year's tie between Juneau and Soldotna for the championship. This year there are four teams with legitimate shots to win the boys state title - Service, Lathrop, Soldotna and Juneau - and only Juneau and Service have divers ranked among the state's top 16.
"Every swim coach I've ever worked with has said you can't win without divers," Tide said as her team practiced early this week. "If you have two or three divers, they can help put you over the top."
"If it's as close as it was last year, if all three of us make finals that's a minimum of six points," said junior Gabe Kelley, who finished 12th at state last year and is the diving team captain.
The Crimson Bears will take seven divers - three boys and four girls - to the region meet today and Saturday at Ketchikan's Mike Smithers Pool. On the boys side, senior Patrick Hoke, Kelley and senior Nathan Schroeder will compete at regions. For the girls, junior Marnita Coenraad, sophomore Lexy Wagoner and sophomore twins Holly and Tanya Trucano will go to Ketchikan.
The Crimson Bears have seven divers ranked in the state's top-16 list this week, although the list is based on regular-season six-dive events and not the 11-dive events used in the region and state meets. Hoke is ranked fifth, Kelley is seventh and Schroeder is 14th for the boys, while Coenraad is third, Wagoner is sixth and Holly Trucano is 12th for the girls. Freshman Kaitlin Niewoehner is ranked eighth in the state, but she won't compete at regions and is currently on Juneau's drill team.
"The list is kind of deceptive for diving," Tide said. "This is where you can really separate the divers. With six dives, you can mask an area you're not strong in. But with 11 at regionals and state, you have to do two dives from every group."
"When you have six, you pick your best," said Coenraad, who finished fifth at state last year. "But when you have 11 dives you have to do them all. I don't like doing dives I'm not comfortable with in front of people."
When Hoke competed during the season - with separate meets on Friday and Saturday - he said his list of dives stayed pretty much the same for the weekend and he didn't make many changes between meets. But he thinks he'll be OK having to do more dives.
"Everyone has to do the same five required dives, so that will help," said Hoke, who competed in Bath, N.Y., last year. "It really is hard, but you really work on getting more dives. I'm just hoping everyone on the team does their best."
"This is my first time, because last year I was injured and I didn't go to regionals," Schroeder said. "I've learned so many new dives this year. I'll be trying to do my best. I've got some high DDs (degrees of difficulty), but I'm not sure how I'll do."
This year, the diving qualifying standard has changed for the state meet, so Juneau has a good chance of taking at least six and possibly all seven to state. There only have been a couple of divers from other Southeast schools this year, and none of them has been to every meet, so Juneau could dominate the region diving events.
"I'm pretty sure Marnita will score (at state)," Tide said. "I think Patrick can do well. Gabe has a lot of high-DD dives, but he's been hitting a lot of them lately. Nathan is new to this, but he's got incredible athletic talent and he just needs to work on his control."
Starting this year, the top three divers in each of the four region meets earn automatic berths for state, plus the next eight divers at large earn berths for a total of 20 divers. In past years, the top diver from each region earned an automatic berth and the next 12 at large qualified for 16 total. The change was because some coaches complained about the wide range in scoring around the state.
"The hard thing, with different judges, is how subjective dive scores can be," Kelley said.
It's a testament to Tide's program that Juneau has been able to produce so many competitive divers, especially considering some of the challenges the Crimson Bears face.
In Southeast Alaska all of the pools have a 1-meter and 3-meter diving springboard in the deep end of the pool - in line with the swimming lanes. Elsewhere in the state most pools are designed in an "L" shape, with a diving well that's separate from the swim lanes.
The Crimson Bears can't dive during the swim team's practice time because all of the lanes are full. Twice a week, the divers get an hour at the Augustus Brown pool during Glacier Swim Club time when two lanes are blocked off.
But three times a week the Crimson Bears have to dive during evening open swim, which means the high school divers have to let anybody else who wants to dive have a spot in line. A few years ago, when there were only four or five JDHS divers, Tide said there might be 20 people waiting in line for the diving board.
"This year there were so many of us, I think we might have intimidated a few people," Tide said of the shorter line. "But when my full team's here, they all work on one dive and they might get five shots at it. When I was in high school, I could go through my whole list."
The lack of practice time can slow down a diver's progress, especially since diving is a muscle-memory sport where the biggest improvement comes with repetition.
"Even though we've got short practices and crowded pool times, I think what these kids have done is amazing," Tide said.
Charles Bingham can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.