Story last updated at 2:30 p.m. Thursday, November 7, 2002

Mariner boys swim to region title
by Sepp Jannotta
Staff Writer

The heavyweight boys teams from Homer and Soldotna came into Saturday's swim finals of the Region III Swimming and Diving Championships as established rivals. And in the parlance of boxing, the Soldotna swimmers landed the more spectacular blows of the meet. The Stars took first in six events, while Homer won two.

But when the final bell sounded, the Mariner boys stood as region champs, besting SoHi for the second straight year. They did it using an effective mix -- the swimming equivalent of a steady barrage of jabs to the chin and body blows -- a pair of firsts, courtesy of seniors Evan Smith and Ben Kuhns, and a slew of seconds, thirds and fourths.

Score the title fight: Homer 98, Soldotna 85. Unanimous decision.

"Our depth really was the key for us," said Mariner coach Bridget Kuhns.

By placing in more events than any other team, the Mariner boys will carry that depth with them when they take eight swimmers up to the state championships, which begin at 1 p.m. today with diving preliminaries at Bartlett High School in Anchorage.

Senior Jake Bell said that unlike the past few seasons, when a handful of Homer swimmers looked to have individual success, this year's Mariner boys squad is set to compete at state as a team.

"It's a lot sweeter because of where we are right now" as a team, said Bell, who also qualified for state the past two seasons.

Kuhns agreed.

"We won on a team's effort at regions, and we are going to have to win on the team's effort at state," she said.

A state title would be a first for the Mariner boys.

On the girls side, SoHi took the team title by a wide margin, scoring 109 points to runner-up Colony's 59.

But Homer, led by a pair of second-place finishes from junior Renae Rykaczewski, took third with 41 points. In addition, strong performances from Rhiannon Jennings, Katelyn Wythe, Deannie Andree and Rhonwen Jennings will send them to state also. Rykaczewski is competing in her third straight state championship meet. Kuhns selected Britta Baechler to travel north as the team's alternate, a key substitute in the event that somebody is unable to swim.

Rhonwen Jennings posted a personal best time on Saturday in the 100 breaststroke, taking fifth with a time of 1 minute, 15.56 seconds.

Jennings is one of three Mariner freshmen going to state. Kevin Wythe and Anthony Augusto also qualified for the meet. Wythe will swim in two events, including the 500 freestyle.

Meanwhile, Bridget Kuhns said Augusto, along with Travis Riley, Jamey Smith, Kevin and brother Daryl Wythe, provided the critical boost in Mariner scoring that put them over the top.

Led by the first-place finishes of Smith (53.73 in the 100-yard butterfly) and Ben Kuhns (56.99 in the 100 backstroke), the Mariners placed in 19 events.

In the 200 individual medley, Andrew Vait (2:06.72), Kevin Wythe (2:06.72) and Riley (2:07.15) finished second, third and fourth, respectively.

Soldotna's Nick Sorrell was the meet's only double winner, trailed in second place by Kuhns in the 200 freestyle and Bell in the 100 freestyle.

The 200 freestyle was decided by less than half a second with Sorrell finishing in 1:48.46 and Kuhns touching at 1:49.09.

In the 100 butterfly, Jamey Smith took second behind his brother at 55.41.

Coach Kuhns said Homer's depth at the state meet could translate into a Mariner swimmer or relay team in the finals of each event. And as in the region meet, that means scoring.

"They've never been in the running for (a state title) before," Kuhns said. "That, in and of itself, is going to motivate them. And maybe they can take it to a level that they've never taken it to before."

Sophomore Jamey Smith agreed that with the inkling of a team title comes some added intensity.

"Last year we didn't have a shot," he said. "This is different. There's a lot more pressure.

"But it's affecting us in a positive way. It just psyches us up more."

Sepp Jannotta can be reached at sjannotta@homer