The North Thurston girls made the most of their two-year run as a Class 2A swim team.
The Rams went undefeated in dual meets, captured the Evergreen Conference championship and won the district title by 100 points before capping last season with a seventh-place finish at the state meet.
A repeat performance is within reach, but it will have to come from a new league and in a larger classification.
“I keep telling the girls we were an orca swimming around South Puget Sound the last two years,” coach Jak Ayres said. “This year we are back in the ocean.”
North Thurston steps up to the 3A classification this school year, but Ayres and his squad aren’t venturing into the bigger pond without plenty of talent.
A total of 18 swimmers, including seven who participated at the state meet, return from last year’s team.
Add another dozen newcomers and Ayres is having hard time finding pool time for everyone.
“It’s a great turnout,” said Ayres, who founded the North Thurston swim program in 1969 and is in his second stint as head coach. “The team is as big as we can handle. It’s a very exciting time for the program. We have 30 swimmers out and all are passionate about the sport and focused.”
Topping the list of returnees is Arriya Hagen, a senior who finished sixth in the 100-meter backstroke and 11th in the 100 butterfly at state last year. She was also part of the Rams’ ninth-place finish in the 200 medley relay.
“I think Arriya’s going to have an incredible year,” Ayres said. “She has a beautiful butterfly stroke and a classic backstroke. There’s not much she can’t do in the pool.”
Hagen and fellow senior captain Ashley Bierman are the only members of the squad who have experience competing at the 3A level – both participating as freshmen in 2009.
“We’ve talked about being back in 3A,” said Hagen, who has been in contact with the coaching staff at New York University about swimming next fall for the Violets. “You’re going against deeper competition, faster times. It’s not really intimidating. It’s a challenge.”
That’s something Hagen, a member of the Thurston Olympians Swim Club, has always sought in the pool since she started swimming competitively at 7.
“I’ve just always loved being in the water,” Hagen said. “My mom suggested I should try club swimming and it was just something I took to.”
Success quickly followed for Hagen, who has more than carried over success to her high school career. She has advanced to state in each of the past three years.
With 10 freshmen on the squad and Hagen one of just three seniors, she will be asked not only for faster times this season, but to be more of a mentor to her teammates – a role she has embraced during the early start of the season.
“We’re a young team, but this group has a lot of experience,” Hagen said. “We have a lot of club swimmers on the team. They might be new to the school, but not the sport.”
Swimming, however, isn’t the primary emphasis for Hagen and her teammates.
Of the 18 returning swimmers, six possess a 4.0 grade-point average while the team’s overall GPA stands at over 3.5, Ayres said.
“This is just a remarkable team,” Ayres said. “They are focused on swimming, but they also bring that same effort to the classroom and other activities. They are putting in the hard work and excelling at all of them.”
What to watch for
Two of the strongest girls swimming programs in South Sound in recent years – Capital and North Thurston – won’t be in the same league for the third consecutive year. Capital returns six swimmers who swam at last year’s 3A state meet, including backstroke and freestyle specialist Hansi Willoughby, but the Cougars will now compete at 2A in the Evergreen Conference with Aberdeen, Centralia/Chehalis/Rochester, River Ridge and Tumwater/Black Hills. North Thurston, which returns seven swimmers with 2A state experience, went undefeated in dual meets in 2009-11 and are now back up at 3A. The Rams are a favorite to go undefeated again. … Olympia features 48 swimmers, and sophomore Sarah Norman has already swam a 4A state-qualifying time in the 100 butterfly. She placed eighth at 4A state in 2011. The Bears defeated North Thurston, 124-96, in the 4A/3A division of the Evergreen Conference Relays last week. Because Capital and Olympia do not have diving, both teams start meets down 13 points. Tumwater, which practices with Black Hills at the River Ridge pool, already has made a big splash by winning the EvCo Relays on Sept. 6, ahead of second-place Capital (98-90). State experience doesn’t lack for many swimmers. Four of them – seniors Lorraine Hack, Anneke Stoker, Abby Sullivan and Madelyn Hougan, swam on the 200 medley relay at state as freshmen in 2009. Hack will join the team late; she is in Greece competing with her synchronized swimming team. … Timberline second-year swim coach Marie Ratcliff has brought on her father, Stan, as an assistant coach. … The South Sound Relays, which feature the majority of South Sound girls swimming programs, will be at 1 p.m. Oct. 6 at The Evergreen State College pool.
SWIMMERS TO WATCH
Ashley Bierman, North Thurston, sr., distance freestyles
Kelly Giffey, W.F. West, sr., sprint freestyles/backstroke/200 IM
Lorraine Hack, Tumwater, sr., 200 IM/butterfly
Arriya Hagen, North Thurston, sr., backstroke/butterfly
Sarah Norman, Olympia, so., butterfly
Anneke Stoker, Tumwater, sr., sprint freestyles/breaststroke
Hansi Willoughby, Capital, sr., backstroke/sprint email@example.com