Once again, the Soldotna swimming and diving team has enough talent to stay afloat after major losses to graduation.
Last season, the Stars hit a landmark for the program when both the boys and girls teams won state championships.
The boys team lost five swimmers off its state team, while the girls lost three swimmers off their state team.
But as the season spun into full throttle last weekend at the Homer Invitational, Soldotna showed they have enough talent to be a force in Region III once again.
The boys took second at the meet, finishing 10 points behind Kodiak, while the girls edged Colony by four points for the crown.
"We still have some strengths, although numberswise we're not as large," said Soldotna coach Sohail Marey, who has 30 kids out for his program. "We're working with our younger ones to get them to step up to the plate and perform.
"You can't rely on championship swimmers or your program will fold in a couple of years. In time, the younger swimmers will be our champions. I'm happy with what I'm seeing so far."
The leader of the peninsula's other perennial top-notch program, Homer's Bridget Kuhns, follows a similar philosophy.
The Homer boys finished fourth in the state last year while the Homer girls finished ninth. But the Mariners are back with talent this year, evidenced by a pair of third-place finishes at the Homer Invitational.
But just as exciting for Kuhns at the Homer Invite was the performance of the junior varsity swimmers. Eight of the top 10 swimmers in the junior varsity girls 50 freestyle were from Homer.
"Everybody looks at the varsity events, but what happens at the junior varsity level can be just as exciting for me," Kuhns said.
The rest of the peninsula's swim programs Kenai Central, Seward and Skyview don't have the depth of Homer and Soldotna and won't be as big of a factor in the race for the region team title.
The following is a closer look at the peninsula's swim programs:
Kuhns has about 33 swimmers in the program this year, including 12 freshmen.
While the boys team grabbed headlines by winning its second straight region title last year, this year Kuhns expects the girls also to earn attention.
"We have some real depth, and some real variety on our girls team," Kuhns said.
The Mariners will be led by senior Renae Rykaczewski, who was second in the 100 backstroke at state last year, and senior Rhiannon Jennings, a state qualifier last year.
Kuhns also is expecting big things from freshman Lauren Bell, who has won state titles in club swimming. In addition to Bell, Kuhns also has solid young swimmers in sophomores and state qualifiers Rhonwen Jennings and Deanne Andree.
Finally, Kuhns is excited by a group of young swimmers with a lot of potential like sophomore Megan DeCino and freshmen Amy Fell and Molly Mahan.
The boys team has 10 swimmers after losing six to graduation.
"We have some things that I think are in the oven cooking right now," Kuhns said.
The mass graduation did not leave the cupboard totally bare. Sophomore Kevin Wythe qualified for state in two events, as did junior Jamey Smith. Senior Daryl Wythe also has state experience on relays, and sophomore Anthony Augusto finished second at the Homer Invite in the 500 freestyle.
Lee Moore moves from the sideline of Nikiski football to the deck of the Kardinals swim pool.
When Moore coached the Bulldogs on the gridiron, his philosophy was for the team to worry not about winning, but about getting better every day.
Moore, who is being helped by his wife, Pam, and former coach William Hubler, said his coaching philosophy in swimming will be the same.
"It's pretty simple because this sport relies on the clock," said Moore, who has 21 swimmers out for his team. "Either you get better or you don't."
The boys squad, which has no state qualifiers returning, will be led by sophomore Luke Baumer in the breaststroke and sprint freestyle and sophomore Landon Mishler in the sprint and mid-distance freestyle.
After that, Moore will try to develop freshmen Brian Moon and Ben Phillips and sophomores Kyle Latz and John Copple.
Senior diver Mike Retone also has been showing rapid improvement for the Kardinals.
The girls team also does not return a state qualifier. The most experienced returner is junior Amanda Keen, a sprint specialist.
Kenai also will get senior leadership from Desiree Huntsman in the butterfly and 50 freestyle, Kristin Siter in the breaststroke and mid-distance freestyle and Amanda Gifford in diving.
Junior Kelsey Dunn will do breaststroke and sprint freestyle for the Kardinals, while the sophomore class has diver and swimmer Madison Gifford, diver Caitlin Hansen and breaststroker Meggie Steinbeck.
The freshmen for Kenai are backstroker and distance freestyler Amy Jahrig, mid-distance freestyler Taylor Moore, breaststroker Hannah Watkins, backstroker Mercedes Hughes and diver Karyn Kimbrell.
Seward swim coach Janet Van Driessche, who has been coaching at Seward since 1977, has made a habit out of developing a number of premium swimmers from a small team.
Jacqueline Van Driessche, a sophomore and the coach's daughter, is one of those premium swimmers. She qualified for state last year in the 50 freestyle and 100 breaststroke.
The Seward boys also received strong performances at the Homer Invite from Jong Kim in the 50- and 500-yard freestyles.
Head coach Dennis Reger and assistant coach Jim Barkman took over the program last year with the goal of one day building it into a steady region contender.
Reger said the Panthers have taken a step toward that end by getting 21 swimmers in the program this year. The boys team has six members, while the girls team has doubled in size.
"When we were coaching our first year there last year, we weren't expecting a big turnout," Reger said. "But, apparently we did something good, because our girls team doubled this year."
Senior Stephanie Lambe made it to state in the 100 freestyle last year, and also swam on the 200 freestyle relay with junior Vanessa Williams.
Other key swimmers for the Panthers will be juniors Maia Matarrese, Rachel Beatty and Kendra Lucas, senior Veronica Aralova and sophomores Sara Clinton and Karrisa Arnold.
Junior diver Alison Simpson also will collect points for the Panthers.
"It'd be nice to win regions, but Soldotna, Homer and Colony are strong," Reger said. "Right now we're focusing on improving our times every meet and hopefully breaking some more records."
On the boys team, Reger loves the potential of freshman Alex Rodgers. Seniors Matt Bates and Justin Richa, junior Merrick Jackinsky and sophomore JM Revis also will be important parts of the team.
The lone diver on the boys team is junior Brian Hibbard.
"These kids are working hard," Reger said. "They're everything a coach could ask for."
The SoHi girls will be seeking their fifth straight Region III title behind a lineup led by Abby Kiffmeyer, the returning state champion in the 100 butterfly.
Other returning state qualifiers for the Stars are senior captain and breaststroker Karina Petersen and sophomore freestyler Eve Green.
Other talent comes from seniors Katie Coursen and Sarah Youngren, freshmen Marit Hartvigson and Jenni Stenga, sophomores Adrienne Marey, Allie Schoessler, Ashley Brandon, Ernie Donaldson, April Michaelson, Lisa Orth and Mabel Marinkovski and juniors Kristin Habighorst and Natasha Segwin.
The team is filled out by sophomore diver Sasha Porter and diver Tory Coursen.
The boys team will be led by senior captain Leo Grasso and senior Aladean Marey. Both are returning state qualifiers.
Other talent for Soldotna includes seniors Jeff Hopkins and Ryan Myers, juniors Nathan Grabowski and Joshua Barsis and sophomores Nathan Schmidt, Seth Payfer and Keegan Birchfield.
The divers on the team are sophomore Dustin Mariman and freshman Spencer McAuliffe.
Senior Clay Burman also will join the Stars after football season concludes.
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