As anticipated, Missoula will be well represented in the finals of the state swimming meet on Saturday.
Missoula Hellgate dominated the preliminaries Friday at a packed and pealing Grizzly pool, placing 25 boys and girls in the top six for finals throughout the 22 events, and all six of the Knights relay teams took first.
“Every one of our kids wants a spot on a relay, so competition within the group is high,” said Helen Houlihan, coach of all three Missoula squads. “Those kids have all stepped up. We’ve seen some amazing swims. … It’s like, ‘Hey, who’s going to come to play today?’”
Including Sentinel and Big Sky/Loyola, at least one swimmer from Missoula will be competing in each event's finals, giving the home town plenty to root for when action resumes at 11 a.m.
Watching sophomore Cale Berkoff calmly cut through the water en route to his top-prelim time of 52.02 seconds in the 100-yard backstroke summed up the composure of all his fellow Hellgate swimmers on Friday.
“I was going kind of easy – going fast enough to know I would place in first, but not going too hard that I would waste all my energy for tomorrow,” Berkoff said. “I’m going to go all out tomorrow right from the start – start off finals with a bang.”
Berkoff, who also had the No. 1 prelim time in the 200 free, helped pace the Knights’ prelim-winning 200-yard medley relay with his backstroke.
Sophomore Brendan Campbell ran the butterfly leg of the medley relay, and he also had the time to beat in the 100-yard butterfly for Saturday. He finished with the second-best time in the 100-yard freestyle, 3 seconds behind Billings Central’s Pierce Oja.
“(Brendan) swam the race he wanted to swim. He realizes that Pierce is a huge challenge – there’s nobody quite like Pierce – but if anybody is going to give Pierce a run for his money, it’s going to be Brendan Campbell,” Houlihan said.
The Hellgate girls got impressive performances up and down the team, as sophomore Julian Fee beat her seed time by nearly 10 seconds to take the No. 2 spot for finals in the 500-yard freestyle.
Freshman Sophia Layton beat her initial seed time by nearly 2 seconds to finish with a preliminary time of 53.80 in the 100 freestyle. She’ll race in the fast lane on Saturday.
Layton’s teammate and fellow freshman Mari Aoki captured the top spot before finals in the 200-yard IM. Her time of 2:09.72 was nearly 7 seconds faster than Billings Central senior Samantha Duval.
Aoki also finished fourth in the 100 breaststroke, earning a spot in Saturday’s final.
“For me, I go pretty hard during prelims or else I won’t do well in the finals,” Aoki said. “I was just focusing on my technique, mostly. (Working on) technique today should set me up for tomorrow.”
Leading the way for the Big Sky team was Adam Zimmer, who had one of the most impressive races of the night in the 100-yard breaststroke.
Last year’s champion left no doubt who the favorite was this year, winning his preliminary by nearly half a pool length at 58.78. He also placed first in the 200 IM, nearly 6 seconds faster than Great Falls CMR’s Patrick Brennan.
“You can never let your guard down, though, because those other guys are pretty fast, too. I hope I can hold on tomorrow,” Zimmer said.
Sentinel’s Andrea Schmidt will be the favorite to win the girls’ 50-yard freestyle and 100 butterfly after posting the best preliminary times in her events. Sentinel’s Ryan Mason, seeded second in the 100 backstroke finals, will look to catch Hellgate’s Berkoff.
And of course, Hellgate senior Hanni Leach took care of business, snatching the top prelim times in the 100 backstroke, 200-yard freestyle and helping her 200-IM team and 400-freestyle squad earn lane four for finals.
She still has her eyes set on breaking her own state record of 54.24 in the 100-yard backstroke, after posting a 55.28 in the event on Friday. The 100 yards will be her last individual race of her career as a Knight.
“That’s definitely still in striking distance,” Leach said. “I’m excited to see tomorrow, when I put a fast suit on, what I can do.”
The rest of the teams better find their fast suits, too, if they want to catch the Knights, who should swim away the team titles.