ANCHORAGE - There was only one word to describe this year's state swimming and diving championships Friday and Saturday at Anchorage's Bartlett High School Swim Pool - tense.
So, after all the events were over and he'd confirmed the Juneau-Douglas High School boys had earned a share of the team title with the Soldotna Stars, you could understand why Juneau coach John Wray was sitting alone in a corner of the pool deck with an exhausted look and a hint of a smile on his face as awards were passed out for the meet's last few events.
Juneau and Soldotna both finished with 77 points, while Service took third place with 69 points, Homer fourth with 64 and North Pole fifth with 55 points. Ketchikan finished 12th with 10 points and also won the team academic award, while Sitka and Petersburg both had athletes qualify for the meet but did not score team points.
"We did well," Wray said once he'd had a chance to collect his thoughts. "And don't give me any of this kiss your sister (stuff). I've seen some guys' sisters I wouldn't mind kissing."
The shared team title is Juneau's first state championship since the Crimson Bear boys won the title in 1984. It is also believed to be the first tie for a boys state title in Alaska history (records only go back to 1978, and there were no ties during those years). The only other tie in state swim championship history was when the East Anchorage and Service girls shared the 1989 crown.
Entering the meet, it was expected that seven teams had legitimate shots at winning the boys team title - Juneau, Soldotna, Lathrop, West Valley, Homer, Service and five-time defending champion Dimond. The close-meet scenario held up during Friday's preliminaries, when, if the preliminaries had been scored as finals, six teams were locked within seven points of each other with no relays included.
"There's more drama here than in a soap opera," Juneau assistant coach Marc Bucat said before Friday's preliminaries even started.
Drama was added before the start of Saturday's finals, when it was announced that Lathrop's Travis Williams - the defending 100-yard backstroke champion and the top seed in two events after Friday's preliminaries - had been disqualified from the meet for shaving down at the pool. It's noted at least twice in the national high school swimming rule book and posted at the pool that no swimmers are allowed to shave down at the meet facility, so Williams' blunder effectively ended Lathrop's chances for a team title.
The meet got off to a raucus start when a remixed Juneau 200-yard medley relay team, which was seeded seventh, held on to claim a narrow 0.03-seconds victory over Lathrop. It was Juneau's first individual or relay state champion since 1997 (boys or girls).
"That was amazing," said Juneau junior Olin Robus, who teamed up with junior Kirk Fishel, sophomore Q Smyth and sophomore Paul Hughes to win the relay despite being in the least-favored lane, next to the wall where there's more chop to the water. "I didn't event watch Q (on the anchor leg), I was just watching the board. That's what told me we won. We were outside heat, they never saw us coming. That's going to carry us the rest of the meet."
"I was aware of where they (the Lathrop swimmers in the next lane) were. I'm not supposed to, but I knew," Smyth said. "When I'd breathe I'd see where they were. We've been saying we want to win right off the blocks."
Even though the Crimson Bears didn't have anybody in the finals of the 200 freestyle, they got some help when Bartlett's Leon Rose-Figura upset top-seeded Nick Sorrell of Soldotna and second-seeded Luke Thomas of North Pole, dropping those teams two points from where they expected to be in the standings.
Juneau picked up its first individual championship when Hughes won the 200 individual medley, with Fishel taking fourth. Hughes not only won the event, but he earned high school swimming all-America consideration with his time.
"Right on," Hughes said after his win, the first of his two individual championships. Hughes also won the 100 breaststroke, the last individual event of the meet, with an automatic all-America time. After the meet, Hughes won the boys swimmer of the year award from the Alaska Swim Coaches' Association, an award based on both the state meet and the 2002 season.
"Our whole team did great," Hughes said. "It's nice ending it up like that. I think our whole performances keyed on that first relay. (Winning the 200 IM and 100 breaststroke) those were my goals. I didn't expect the 200 IM to go so fast."
Juneau also picked up a victory from Fishel in the 100 backstroke, where he'd been the second seed after Friday's preliminaries but moved up to the top seed when Williams was disqualified.
"It makes me tired," Fishel said of the close meet. "We're pretty happy, but I'm beat. The whole team did great and we'll all be back next year."
The Crimson Bears received more help when there were two ties for first place in the 50 freestyle (between Soldotna's Ty Mann-Schweigert and Lathrop's Sam Wolfe) and the 100 freestyle (between Soldotna's Nick Sorrell and Bartlett's Leon Rose-Figura). The two ties meant first- and second-place points were combined and split for each swimmer, meaning the two Soldotna swimmers only got eight points instead of the full nine for their wins.
The Crimson Bears picked up strong performances from other swimmers, as sophomore Tyler Hennon took fifth place and senior Jake Kreuzenstein was sixth in the 500 freestyle, while Robus took seventh place in the 100 breaststroke.
Juneau also got a strong performance from its 200 freestyle relay team of Smyth, Robus, sophomore Mike Kasten and Kreuzenstein. The 200 free relay team held onto its sixth seed even after Wray moved some of the team's stronger swimmers out of it and into the two other relays, hoping to pick up more points in those events which open and close the meet.
"That was fun," Kasten said. "That's all that matters, getting that one point."
Juneau held a slim 65-59 lead over Soldotna entering the meet's final event, the 400 freestyle relay. The Stars easily held the top seed and were favored to win the event, so Juneau's team of Fishel, Hennon, Smyth and Hughes needed to finish in second place to win the meet outright or third place for a tie. Finishing worse than third, with a Soldotna win in the event, meant Juneau lost the meet.
Juneau, which was seeded sixth, started out the race in fifth place and once appeared to drop back to sixth. But in the final two legs, Juneau started to move up in the standings. Soldotna easily won the event with a time worthy of all-America consideration, but Juneau moved up to third place just a split second behind second-place Service. That was good enough for the tie.
"That was a good relay," Smyth said. "We were giving it our all."
"Everyone swam their best and every race counted," Hennon said. "We're really excited."
Looking ahead to next year, with almost everyone back (Juneau loses only Kreuzenstein and Guy Barnes to graduation) the Crimson Bears are optimistic about their chances at state. Juneau expects freshman swimmer Aaron Hughes and junior diver Gabe Kelley to both make finals at state next year after competing in the preliminaries this year.
"Next year, we'll be the only one," Paul Hughes said about the team title.
Charles Bingham can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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