ANCHORAGE - The boys half of the state swimming and diving championships this weekend is so close it's like drawing names out of a hat - you could reach in, pull out any team's name and call it the champion.
As many as seven teams, including the Juneau-Douglas High School Crimson Bears, have realistic shots at winning the boys title in what's shaping up to be one of the closest team races in recent years. Besides Juneau, the other teams in the title hunt include Soldotna, Homer, Service, North Pole, Lathrop and five-time defending champion Dimond, which has won seven of the last eight titles.
Last year's state meet came down to the final event - the 400-yard freestyle relay - with Dimond winning the team title with 74 points to 70 for Lathrop, 69 for Service and 55 for Juneau in fourth place. This year's meet could be even closer, and Dimond is the only one of the seven leading contenders not to have a relay team qualify for the final event.
"It's so close," Juneau coach John Wray said. "For the boys there are seven teams that are so close to each other . You can do the meet a couple of ways and get different winners. ... Last year was pretty close and all it takes is one thing to turn it around. Lathrop had one person DQ (disqualified) and Dimond won the meet."
"It's mostly a team thing we're looking for," said Juneau sophomore Paul Hughes, who has the top seed time in the 200-yard individual medley and is seeded second in the 100 breaststroke with a time good enough to earn him all-American consideration. "We have really high goals as a team."
Hughes is one of two Juneau boys to earn a top seed this weekend, with junior Kirk Fishel the top seed in the 100 backstroke. Ketchikan senior Ben Voetberg is the only other Southeast swimmer to have a top seed, in the 100 freestyle.
"I think anybody can take it," Fishel said. "All the other teams are looking great, but we're hoping to get it. I'm swimming faster than last year. I'm looking for a good performance and not really a certain place."
If the Juneau boys can win the state title, it will be the school's first state swim championship since 1984 when Juneau won with just six swimmers. The last time the Juneau girls won was in 1983.
The girls meet also figures to be close, but with fewer teams in the mix - two-time defending champion Service, Soldotna and Lathrop. Service, which won with 144.5 points last year over Soldotna (59.5) and Dimond (57), has won four of the past six state titles. The Juneau girls took 10th place last year, but hope to improve their finish this weekend.
"We're shooting for the top five," said senior Weather Potdevin, who is Juneau's top girls state qualifier with a fourth seed in the 500 freestyle. "We've been working hard all season and our tapers are going well. We're hoping we can finish better than we did last year. Some of us were disappointed with where we were last year."
If Juneau doesn't win a team title, the Crimson Bears would love to claim their first individual state championship since 1997. That year Juneau picked up three state championships as Jesie Lewis won the girls 50 freestyle and 100 free events to earn girls swimmer of the year honors, and Wade Walter tied with Petersburg's Derek Gibb to share the title in the boys 100 backstroke.
Juneau came close to breaking its individual title drought last year as Hughes finished second in both the 200 IM and the 100 breaststroke and Fishel was second in the 100 backstroke.
This year, Hughes has nearly a two-second lead over second-seeded Gilbert Raposa of Dimond in the 200 IM while Raposa, the defending 100 breaststroke champion, leads Hughes by 0.4 seconds in the 100 breast. In the 100 back, Fishel leads Homer's Ben Kuhns by just 0.2 seconds, and defending champion Travis Williams is seeded eighth but is only 1.52 seconds back.
"It would be great to end the streak," Hughes said. "It all comes down to the finals. I do think there's a rivalry there (with Raposa). The competition down here (in Southeast, which qualified five boys for state) has been pretty good. Last year definitely helped me prepare for state."
"There are so many 58s and 57s and any of them could take it," said Fishel, whose 100 back seed time is 56.79 seconds, with the top 10 swimmers within two seconds of his time. "I think anybody can win."
Those three events are especially strong for the Juneau boys, which qualified three swimmers in each - Hughes (first), Fishel (fourth) and Olin Robus (11th) in the 200 IM; Fishel (first), Tyler Hennon (12th) and Mike Kasten (16th) in the 100 back; and Paul Hughes (second), Aaron Hughes (sixth) and Robus (12th) in the 100 breast. Juneau also qualified three swimmers in the 500 freestyle - Hennon (fourth), Jake Kreuzenstein (fifth) and Guy Barnes (ninth).
Juneau's girls don't have any three-swimmer events, but they do have two state qualifiers in the 200 freestyle, the one-meter springboard diving event, the 500 freestyle and the 100 freestyle. Both the Juneau boys and girls teams have all three relays qualified for this weekend, and relays earn double points compared to individual events at state.
While most of the attention will be focussed on Juneau's top swimmers, there were some younger ones who were happy to earn spots at state. Kasten, a sophomore, was a member of the 400 free relay that won an automatic state berth, but he received a bonus when he made it in the 100 back.
"I was really excited," Kasten said about Monday's pre-practice meeting when Wray announced who'd qualified for state. "I'd crossed my fingers and was hoping. When he called my name I was so excited. I think I can go way faster. I want to try to score some points and do something to help the team."
Freshman Giselle Stone, who qualified as a member of the 200 free relay, said she wants to learn from the meet.
"I'm really excited to go as a freshman," Stone said. "It'll be a lot more competitive than regions, but it will help me because I pace myself a lot."
The state meet opens at 3:30 p.m. today at Anchorage's Bartlett High School with the swimming preliminaries, followed by diving preliminaries about 6 p.m. The championship finals start at 1 p.m. Saturday. A complete list of state qualifiers can be found on the Web at http://www.akswimming.org/.
Charles Bingham can be reached at email@example.com.