When the Free State High girls swimming team hops into the pool today at 4:30 p.m. at Hummer Sports Complex in Topeka, they’ll do so as the defending Class 6A state champions.
Because of that, the Firebirds have a distinct advantage on the rest of the competition in that they know exactly what the rest of the field is thinking heading into the meet.
“It’s definitely made us work harder all year,” senior Morgan Flannigan said. “We know people are chasing us because we were in that position last year. It’s a different feeling, but not too different. We’re still excited, and we still have butterflies.”
Free State enters state as one of four teams with legitimate state-title hopes. Shawnee Mission East, which won the Sunflower League meet, and Olathe Northwest, which has been in contention at state in each of the past three seasons, are two of the others, and Washburn Rural also figures to be in the mix. Knowing that they will be duking it out with so many other teams has made it difficult for FSHS coach Annette McDonald to forecast how the weekend might play out.
“It’s going to be close,” she said. “Shawnee Mission East has the divers, and they have depth this year, too. But if we move up in some events, which is the anticipation, it’s going to be really close.”
The Firebirds are seeded first in four of the 12 events on the pre-state psych sheet, which shows the top times of everyone who qualified in each event. Olathe Northwest also is seeded first in four events.
Flannigan is seeded first in the 200 and 500 freestyles, and junior Chloe Portela is seeded first in the 100 butterfly. Free State’s 200 medley relay team (Flannigan, Portela, junior Reilly Moore and senior Heather Clark) also has the fastest time in the state this season.
Because all but two girls from last season’s champion return to this year’s squad, the focus is on repeating as champions. Tuesday, the Firebirds revisited the goals they set earlier this season and went through a visualization exercise to help them get focused on winning. For some, the drill had a calming effect.
“I’m very nervous,” senior Adrianne Black said. “I try to keep that in the back of my mind, but it keeps coming forward. It’ll stay there all weekend. And then I graduate on Sunday.”
Added Clark: “It’s weird to think we’ve already (won state). Last year was such a great experience. To not have that feeling again would be disappointing.”
Lawrence High also will send a handful of swimmers to state this weekend, though the Lions likely won’t figure into the race for the team title. Still, LHS coach Kent McDonald said he was excited to see what his crew could do at state.
Freshman Heather Cistola qualified in both the 200 and 500 freestyle and is seeded ninth and sixth, respectively. Senior Jessica Boyer also qualified for two individual events, the 200 individual medley and 100 butterfly.
Those two will team with Mallory Neet and Julia Payton for the two relays in which the Lions qualified, the 200 medley relay and the 400 free relay.