End of an era?

Posted: Wednesday, November 13, 2002

For five consecutive years, boys state swimming was punctuated by a Dimond High School stamp. For two years straight, Service was the last word in girls prep swimming in Alaska.

But that all changed Saturday at the Alaska School Activities Association State Swimming and Diving meet at Bartlett High in Anchorage, as the perennial champion Anchorage schools found themselves in a tight -- and eventually losing -- battle with Soldotna and Juneau-Douglas, both swimming programs from non-Anchorage schools.

And a group of Service parents commented in astonishment as the events of the day unfolded.

"The Anchorage schools don't seem to be as dominant this year," one parent said following the 200-yard freestyle, in which the top Anchorage school finisher placed third.

After 14 of the last 15 boys champions, and 12 of the last 15 girls champions came from Anchorage, some regarded it as a nice change, however.

"I think the arrogance got put to bed," first-year Bartlett swimming coach Elizabeth Hill. "A lot of focus is put on the schools in Anchorage and a lot of other schools around the state get ignored. Everyone got the wakeup call they needed."

Juneau-Douglas coach John Wray, whose boys team shared first-place honors with Soldotna, expressed similar sentiments.

"It's nice to recognize swimming organizations from outside the Anchorage Bowl," he said.

But there was more to Saturday than just acknowledging a non-Region IV share of the boys state trophy and sole proprietorship of the girls crown. By the end of the day, 17 individual first-place titles were awarded to competitors who would return to schools outside the state's population center. That includes a share of the boys 100-yard freestyle race that Soldotna's Nick Sorrell earned in a tie with Bartlett's Leon RoseFigura, and two championship crowns shared by Ty Mann-Schweigert, from Soldotna, and Sam Wolfe from Lathrop.

That accounts for 14 1/2 of the 24 competitive events, a little more than 60 percent of the wins leaving Anchorage. Which begs the question: Has Anchorage prep swimming dominance come to an end?

"Oh, it's not over," said former Colony coach Cindy Savino. "If Service had been in that (girls) 200 medley relay, it might have been a different story."

A crucial false start by Service senior Brette Winegarner disqualified her team, costing the Cougars a chance at beating the Stars in the opening event of the meet, and -- one could speculate -- the necessary points to close the two-point margin that left Soldotna on top at meet's end.

Even Service coach Ben Kitchen's self-fulfilling prophecy on the TV news the night before the finals may have pointed to Savino's claim.

"I said the only way we could lose is by some major mistake," Kitchen said.

Soldotna coach Sohail Marey said Service may have succumbed to all the pressure of being the favorite. He said by not being in the spotlight, his team was able to redirect that pressure.

"The pressure was on Service, not my girls," he said. "I trained my kids to keep the pressure on their opponent."

Kitchen admitted that the playing field in the swimming is starting to level off.

"In general, there's a greater level of parity in the state," he said. "Anchorage is not as strong as it has been in the past. Fairbanks and the Kenai (Peninsula) have some great programs."

So why have Anchorage teams ruled supreme in the sport for as long as they have? And does this weekend's non-Anchorage sweep suggest change on the horizon, or an anomaly?

"More than anything, Anchorage dominance in the past has had to do with numbers," Kitchen said.

He said swimming programs at junior high schools and the numerous swimming clubs in the city have helped to develop athletes who come to high school ready to swim.

Marey said the variety of choices in Anchorage and the ability to choose a school helps to bolster the numbers.

"That increases their depth," he said. "For us smaller schools, that is hard to beat. The only way we can beat them is having them on a year when there is not as much depth at those schools."

Hill said as demographics change in Anchorage and across the state, the reign of just a few schools over the competition will go away.

"You don't see Service and Dimond being at the top forever," she said.

A new high school is planned to open in fall 2004 in south Anchorage. Kitchen said that school may significantly break up enrollment in that area.

"When the new high school is built, it could split up the south end of town where Service and Dimond are," he said.

But in the meanwhile, at pools across the state, smaller schools are making plans to satiate their hunger for a state championship.

Homer's boys were in third place, just 10 points out of first going into Saturday's final race, the 400 freestyle relay. Mariner coach Bridget Kuhns said this altered a lot of perspectives about where the balance of power lies in swimming.

"We've never been in the running before," she said. "It changed everybody's focus."

Marcus K. Garner is a reporter for the Peninsula Clarion. Comments can e-mailed to clarion@alaska.net.

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