For the past 22 years, the Soldotna Stars boys swimming and diving team has been the Ted Stevens of the Region III arena.
Challengers have rarely emerged, and when they have emerged, they have usually been dismissed.
But times have changed. Last year, the Homer boys topped Soldotna and kept the Stars from taking their 21st region title in 22 years.
This year, with the swim season set to kick off with a tri-meet between Soldotna, Kenai and Skyview Saturday at 10 a.m. at Skyview, the Mariners will again be a major threat to the dominance of the Soldotna boys in the region.
Homer returns six seniors from last year's championship team, as well as a key junior and a promising freshman.
About the only major change the Mariners have undergone is in the coaching realm, where Bridget Kuhns takes over on the deck for Trent Fischer.
But that change isn't that severe. Kuhns has been around Homer swimming since 1989. She has mostly been a club coach, so she already has coached all the kids on Homer's team.
Kuhns calls to mind Soldotna coach Sohail Marey, who coached for a number of years in the club ranks before taking over the high school team in 1999. Since then, the Stars have taken all three girls region titles and two of the three boys region titles.
"Our boys team has the strong group of senior boys that took the title for the first time last year," Kuhns said. "Those same boys are hungry to finish out their last year as Mariners.
"I know it's a special year for them."
Just as the Mariners are hungry to retain their title, so are the Stars hungry to regain it.
"They definitely want to get it back," Marey said. "They're not happy about last year."
The Stars also return with a team that is very similar to last year. Soldotna didn't lose any key seniors, but a couple of swimmers from last year, so far, have not come out for the team.
Still, Soldotna returns six swimmers who were on the list of state qualifiers for last year. The Stars also add some promising freshmen.
As for the other boys teams in the region, and the other boys teams on the peninsula, some have solid swimmers, but it appears nobody has the depth to get involved in the Soldotna-Homer fracas.
On the girls side, Soldotna remains the overwhelming favorite to take a fourth straight region crown.
The Stars lost a pair of seniors from the team that won the region last year by nearly 20 points, but still return five swimmers who qualified for state in individual events last season.
"Sometimes it's hard to keep focus when everybody is saying the region is a piece of cake," Marey said. "Until we have it, it's important that we look at our chances at state after that."
The following is a closer look at the five swimming and diving programs on the Kenai Peninsula:
Although many of the seniors on the team will take the lead, Kuhns, with an eye toward the future, is focusing on emphasizing the concept of team.
"I know our strength is in the seniors," Kuhns said. "We also have 13 freshmen coming on the scene. They will be important, too."
The six returning seniors are Jake Bell, who went to state in the 50 and 100 freestyle; Ben Kuhns, who went to state in the 200 freestyle and 100 backstroke; Evan Smith, who went to state in the 200 individual medley and 100 butterfly; Andrew Vait, who went to state in the 200 individual medley and 100 breaststroke; Travis Riley, who went to state in the 200 individual medley; and Miguel Ramos.
Also returning is junior Daryl Wythe, who swam relays at state, and sophomore Jamey Smith, who went to state in the 100 butterfly.
Added to that mix is freshman Kevin Wythe, a good distance swimmer.
"Within themselves, on a day-to-day training basis, they are a force to be contended with," Kuhns said. "They all not only think about outside this pool, but inside this pool they each have their work cut out for them."
The girls team does not have any seniors on board, but still packs some quality, nonetheless.
Junior Renae Rykaczewski went to state last year in the 100 backstroke and 100 butterfly. She is joined by junior Rhiannon Jennings, who swam relays at state.
Kuhns also is excited by the addition of freshmen, including Deannie Andree and Rhonwen Jennings.
The only state qualifier to return to the Kardinals this year is senior Rachel Knowles, but that hasn't curbed the enthusiasm of longtime coaches William Hubler and Eleanor Thomson.
Although Knowles is one of the two seniors on the team, Hubler and Thomson said the team of 21 is bubbling with young talent that gained experience swimming with the Peninsula Piranhas, a club team.
"Most of them have been with us with the Piranhas, and that is so helpful," Thomson said. "We don't have to start a learn-to-swim program, which is what we've had to do in years past.
"There's just tremendous enthusiasm. They want to learn and they're always asking questions about what it takes to succeed."
The girls team will be led by Knowles, who was first in the region and second in the state in diving last year. Versatile senior Ruth McConnell is back after sickness hurt her toward the end of last season.
Other swimmers mentioned by the coaches were sophomore Kelsey Dunn in the breaststroke and freestyle, sophomore Amanda Keen in the sprints and freshman Madison Gifford in the sprints.
But Thomson pointed out that it's hard to see who the key swimmers will be right now. That's because of swimmers like sophomore Denali Tufto, who has a ton of potential.
"Come back in midseason," Thomson said. "That should be the telling point. We'll have a better idea then."
The wait-and-see attitude also pervades the young boys team, where coaches like what they're seeing in freshman Luke Baumer.
Hubler also is excited to have his first boys diver in six years -- sophomore Jordan Garten.
"It's going to be a building year, but this is a great group to be building with," Hubler said. "I couldn't ask for anything more as far as a coachable group goes."
As usual, Janet Van Driessche, who has been coaching at Seward since 1977, doesn't have a large number of kids out for the team. This year, Seward's numbers will be around seven or eight, meaning it's impossible to compete for region crowns.
But the low numbers also mean the swimmers get extra attention from an ultraexperienced coach.
"We focus on individual bests," Van Driessche said. "And we do a lot with technique. We're always getting better with technique."
With both state qualifiers from last year's team graduated, Seward will look to other swimmers to carry the load this year.
The boys team has about four members and will be lead by senior Nick Swann in the breaststroke and freestyle and sophomore David LeClair in distance events.
On the girls side, five girls are on the team. The fastest of them is versatile freshman Jacqueline Van Driessche, the coach's daughter.
Other important members of the team will be sophomore Kristin Clark in the freestyle and breaststroke and freshman Chelle Schaefer in the freestyle, breaststroke and backstroke.
"It's a pretty cohesive team," Janet Van Driessche said. "We get along pretty well.
"There's no big tensions and they all want to swim. They all want to be here, and that's a good thing."
Dennis Reger takes over the program from Joanne Wainwright, who had been at the helm of the Panthers for the past 12 years.
Reger was an assistant at Soldotna for the past five years. Joining him on the deck will be another former Soldotna coach -- Jim Barkman.
Barkman was Soldotna's head coach in 1997 and 1998. With Reger as his assistant, Barkman led the Stars boys to two region titles.
Reger and Barkman face a different task at Skyview than they did at Soldotna. While Soldotna has been a traditional powerhouse, the Panthers have never, as a team, taken a region title.
This year, the team does not have any state returners.
"Jim and I had worked well together, so we figured it was an opportunity to work together again," Reger said. "We came over to start a program that, hopefully, will one day build itself into a champion."
Reger had 14 swimmers out for the program, but he said that number is growing every day. He is hoping to end up with more than 20 swimmers. It is also a young group of swimmers, with just two being seniors.
"We're just here to improve kids, and to improve their personal times," Reger said. "Team goals are nice, but in the real world, we know we won't be winning regions this year."
The experienced members of the boys teams will be senior Troy Eberline swimming backstroke and freestyle, sophomore Merrick Jackinsky swimming the 100 freestyle and 200 individual medley and junior Matt Bates swimming the butterfly and freestyle.
On the girls side, senior Ashley Risch will swim the 200 individual medley and the butterfly, sophomore Vanessa Williams will swim the 200 freestyle and the individual medley and sophomore Maia Matarrese will swim freestyle.
Sophomore Jackie Rainwater, freshman Becky Kilfoyle and junior Jenna Standridge also will be key swimmers, but the coaching staff is not sure what the trio will be swimming yet.
"We're young," Reger said. "The kids are mostly sophomores, with a couple of juniors. It's a good group to build on."
Barkman also said he likes the enthusiasm of the group.
"They seem happy," he said. "Now we must keep them that way. That's the challenge for any coach -- to have the team happy at the end of the season."
On the girls side, the returners who qualified for state in individual events are senior captain Jenna Syverson (50, 100 freestyle), senior captain Amberlee Query (200 individual medley, 100 backstroke), junior Abby Kiffmeyer (100 butterfly, 100 backstroke), junior Keely Chavka (200, 500 freestyle) and junior Karina Petersen (100 breaststroke).
Senior diver Heidi Biggs also should give the Stars a boost. She was on track for a state appearance last season before getting injured.
Marey also has a number of others on the verge of state appearances, including junior Catie Coursen, junior Sarah Youngren, junior Lindsay Dudley and junior Alana Hutto.
Soldotna's resounding depth continues with sophomore Jessica Stewart and a host of swimmers new to the high school program: sophomores Tina Powers, Katie Jones and Kristin Habighorst, freshmen Eve Green, Adrienne Marey, Amirah Marey and Allie Schoessler, and freshmen divers Tory Coursen and Jennifer Werth.
On the boys side, the state returners are senior captain Nick Sorrell (200 freestyle, 100 breaststroke), senior captain Clayton Harrison (100 freestyle, 100 backstroke), senior Ty Mann-Schweigert (50 freestyle, 100 butterfly), junior Aladean Marey (100 freestyle, 100 backstroke), junior Leo Grasso (200 freestyle, 100 backstroke) and junior Jeff Hopkins (relays).
Marey also is expecting big things from freshman Keegan Birchfield. Soldotna's depth is filled out by junior Ryan Meyers, sophomores Nathan Grabowski and Joshua Barsis and freshman Seth Payfer.
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