As the Juneau-Douglas High School swim team filed out of practice Wedenesday night, there was a different spirit about the Crimson Bears than there usually is during the regular season.
Most of the swimmers were wearing white t-shirts with red and black hand-written slogans as they left Augustus G. Brown Swimming Pool. But there were other subtle differences - a little more camaraderie, laughter and tension - as the Crimson Bears completed their final regular-season practice.
The Juneau swimmers were gearing up for the Region V swimming and diving championships, which take place today and Saturday at the Mike Smithers Pool in Ketchikan. The preliminaries start at 6 p.m. tonight, with the finals scheduled for 2 p.m. on Saturday.
"We're excited," said senior Lisse Focht, a co-captain for the girls team. "It's going to be really fun. We're going to do well. We've worked hard."
"I think the whole team is in a pretty good place," added senior Olin Robus, the boys team captain. "We've got a lot of team spirit."
The Crimson Bears are seeking their 11th straight girls title and third straight boys region crown. Both Juneau teams are favored, but the girls could be challenged by Petersburg while the boys may be tested by Ketchikan.
This weekend is doubly important for the Crimson Bears. The top swimmers and divers this week qualify for the state meet Nov. 7-8 in Anchorage, and the only way to get to state is to have a strong region meet. Last year, after sweeping the region crowns, Juneau's boys tied with Soldotna for the state title while the girls took fifth place.
"I think a pretty good majority of us will go to state," added junior Kelsey Potdevin, who will help lead the girls team. "We want to do better than last year. We can always improve."
In the individual swimming events, the region champion at each of the four regional meets earns an automatic berth at state, with 12 more swimmers qualifying at large for a total of 16 per event. In relay events, the four region champions and four teams at-large qualify for a total of eight. Diving qualification changed this year due to the subjective nature of the scoring, so now the top three divers from each region earn automatic berths at state with eight at-large bids for 20 total divers earning spots.
One key element of the region meet is planning ahead for state. Once the swimmers are declared for certain events at the region meet, they'll be limited to those same events through the state meet. The only changes can come in relays, where six swimmers can be listed as eligible for the team but only four will actually swim.
For some swimmers, it's obvious which events they'll be slotted into. But then there are wild cards such as Ketchikan's Ben Voetberg, who is the state's top-ranked boys swimmer in four events - the 200-yard individual medley, the 50 freestyle, the 100 free and the 100 backstroke. Voetberg is limited to two individual events, so that means everybody else will move up a spot in the events he doesn't swim.
Some years there are a couple of events that wind up being loaded with the state's top swimmers, while other events wind up with only one or two top swimmers. In a close team race, coaches want to find their best clear shots to score points.
"It's kind of a coin toss," Robus said.
"John (head coach John Wray) made the right choices for us," Focht said.
One place the Juneau boys feel strong is the 500 free, where junior Tyler Hennon ranks third in the state and freshman Kyle O'Brien ranks fifth.
"In the 500 we're looking to get me, Kyle, Tom Josephson and Josh Stone to state," Hennon said. "We're feeling pretty good."
Juneau has at least one swimmer ranked in the state in every boys event, and usually two or three. Three Juneau divers are ranked and the Crimson Bears have three top-seven relay teams.
Robus ranks second behind Sitka's Matt Way in the 100 breaststroke and is third in the 200 IM, his two individual events at regions.
The only Southeast girl to hold a No. 1 spot in the state rankings - Genny Szymanski of Haines in the 100 back - said earlier this year she'll miss the region and state meets because her family will be in Pennsylvania.
Focht is Juneau's top swimmer in the distance freestyle events, while Potdevin is ranked in the backstroke and two freestyle events. Freshman Amanda Jones is ranked in the three events, while four Juneau divers are ranked. All three Crimson Bear relay teams are ranked, with the 200 free relay being highest at sixth.
Charles Bingham can be reached at email@example.com.