Story last updated at 12:27 p.m. Friday, September 6, 2002

Mariner swimmers hope to defend Region III title
by Chris Bernard
Staff Writer

The Homer High School Mariners swim team will host its season opener this weekend with teams from across the state competing in the Homer Invitational Swim Meet.

Swimmers from Kenai, Soldotna, Skyview, Seward, Wasilla, Kodiak, Palmer, Unalaska and Colony will take to the pool Saturday morning, with a dive competition beginning at 5 p.m. the night before.

Last year, the Mariners boys team was the Region III swim champs, and this year will be looking to defend that title while carrying the momentum well into the state tournament, said Bridget Kuhns, a longtime Kachemak Swim Club coach who this year took over the reins of the team from coach Trent Fischer.

"The boys took the title from the Soldotna boys, who have won plenty of championships," she said. "Trent did a great job. This year, we've got six returning seniors on the boys team, so we're hoping to extend that into the state tournament instead of peaking at regional."

The girls team took second at the regional meet last year, and this year is looking to improve upon that solid foundation, Kuhns said.

"We have strong leadership in junior Renae Rykacewski, who has gone to state every year," she said. "She's followed by Rhiannon Jennings, also a junior, who is looking for a spot at state this year. She's looking to live up to her potential this year."

Rykacewski's main events are the 100-yard backstroke and the 100-yard butterfly. Jennings rules the pool in the 100 fly and the 200 individual medley.

"You don't want to lay everything out early in the season so everyone knows what you're capable of. Our strongest philosophy is bringing everybody together to do the job."

To that end, Kuhns has expanded the team's cross-training regimen to include team-building exercises, as well as yoga to help the swimmers learn to better control their breathing and relaxation skills.

Kuhns said swimming often comes down to a mental game, and is working with the swimmers on making that happen. "I want them to know they are as good as any other swimmers out there," she said.

For the girls team, Kuhns is looking to her freshmen to contribute.

"The freshmen girls don't realize their importance yet," she said. "This weekend is going to give them a pretty good taste of what to expect for the season. We're not just depending on our upperclassmen. The freshmen have the talent, but they don't have the experience yet. I know they want to step up to the plate."

On the boys squad, she said, she's got big shoes to fill.

"It's hard to come in on the heels of last year's winning season," she said. "I want to maintain everything they did last year and improve upon that as well. They know what they have to do this season to be successful.

"They're going to have to depend on each other and support each other," she said. "There's a lot of records on the boards that they'd love to break."

Kuhns said she's got three swimmers who could be top seeds in the state this year, "If that's their goal.

"It has to be their goal," she said. "Skillfully, they can be as competitive as the best in the state. But they have to want it."

Seniors Jake Bell, Andrew Vait and Evan Smith each head into this season with strong histories in their events.

Bell is a sprint freestyler, whose performances in the 50- and 100-yard free have shown his potential.

"Those are pressure races, and he's working on his mental game," Kuhns said. "It requires a confidence, almost a cockiness, to win those."

Vait swims the individual medley and the breaststroke, and this year is looking for a personal best in the latter.

"He needs to lose about a second to break the board record," he said. "He's working on relaxing his form and swimming a little more smoothly."

For Smith, who swims the IM and the butterfly, Kuhns said his "underwater weapon" is what sets him apart.

"He knows how to carry his speed underwater, which gives him an edge," she said. "He's big, he's fit, he's strong, and he's done his homework. He wants to be in the top rung at state, and I know he can be."

Senior Ben Kuhns, a freestyler and backstroker, is aiming for a strong season in the middle-distance sprint events, and teammates Miguel Ramos and Travis Riley, both seniors, and junior Daryl Wythe all have good chances to qualify for the state meet this year as well, Kuhns said.

In all, 29 Mariners make up the roster this season.

The Homer Invitational begins at 5 p.m. Friday with diving. Swimming begins Saturday at 10 a.m., with an awards presentation following the final event.

Chris Bernard can be reached at cbernard@homernews.com

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