MISSOULA — Missoula Hellgate's Matthew Fritz dove into the pool to commence the 200-yard freestyle relay at last year's Class AA state swim meet like he always had: headfirst and leading the four-man team.

After a turn and a wall touch, he had a front-row seat to watch what he started — an eventual state-record-setting time of 1 minute, 29.92 seconds, besting a mark that had stood since 1991.

"Absolutely amazing, the feeling is inexplicable," Fritz said of the relay win that helped fuel the Knights' fourth straight team title. "(But) the feeling that comes to me first is pride; pride in knowing that I put forth everything I had and seeing a lifetime worth of work pay off.

"Not only for me, but for my teammates and for Hellgate as a whole."

The work that Fritz — and his fellow senior class — have put into the pool has no doubt paid dividends. Both the boys' and the girls' teams look poised to bring home a fifth straight state title after a dominating performance last Saturday at the Missoula City Meet.

But the work the Knights do beside the pool deck with their teammates, in the classroom and in Missoula is what has their coach particularly beaming. 

"... Their sportsmanship is just paramount, this whole crew is that way and they’ve led by example," said Helen Houlihan, who coaches all three of Missoula's high school programs. "All of our kids have that, all of our kids are developing that quality. They have to have somebody to look up to and this senior class has just been great that way."

With so many great swimmers — the Hellgate boys and girls brought back six All-Americans, eight state record holders and eight individual champions — it's tough to know where to begin on the long list of leaders. 

Let's start at the top with A ... or Mari Aoki.

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Aoki, a senior, is the defending 200 IM and 500 freestyle champ, and contributed to a pair of relay wins last year at state, too.

The reserved Aoki probably wouldn't let on that she competed at the USA Swimming Junior National championships earlier this month, alongside senior Jesse Ecklund and juniors Gabby Smart and Katharine Berkoff.

She simply wants her individual success to serve as an example to future swimmers.

"... Knowing that your hard work is going to lead to some kind of success; that will be good for me personally and show the younger swimmers that if we work this hard all year, we will be able to succeed at the end," she said after a Tuesday swim practice that started at 5:30 a.m.

And Aoki, who hasn't yet committed to swim in college but expects to compete at the next level, wants her team to succeed — even outside of the water. Fellow senior Ellee Becker, a University of Portland commit for cross-country, said Aoki even helps her teammates with homework.

"Mari is super-nice and she’s super-smart and helps me in school a lot and she works really, really hard and I think that’s why she’s so good at swimming," said Becker. "She helps her teammates out a lot."

It's a trait Becker shares, too, as well as the rest of the eight seniors.

"Becker has two younger siblings and she sets a great example for them and Mari and (Ecklund are) the same way," Houlihan said, rattling off the list of Hellgate swimmers in their final year of high school. "... And Kelsey Ammons is an excellent student and Lydia (Amon's) bright and Darragh (Mahn), he’s obviously committed to (the University of Denver) and is ready to go."

Then there's Fritz.

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The broad-shouldered senior captain for Hellgate, who took the first leap off the platform for the Knights' state champion 200 relay team, is used to being out in front. He strives to be a leader.

He remembers a quote from the Naval Academy Elite Swim Camp he attended last summer at the United States Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland. It propels him in the pool and in his many extracurricular activities.

"'Every man is my better in some way. In this, I learn from him,'" Fritz said, reciting an excerpt famously penned by Ralph Waldo Emerson.

Fritz interprets it to have almost a self-sacrificing meaning. It's fitting, as he hopes to return to that very same Naval Academy for college. 

Navy is notorious for being one of the most difficult schools to receive an acceptance letter from. Before the rigors of the Plebe Summer all incoming freshman must take, there's countless entrance exams and requirements not normally needed for state school.

A prospective Midshipman from Montana must also receive a military recommendation from a state representative or senator. Three from Missoula County were awarded a nomination from U.S. Representative Greg Gianforte.

One was Fritz, who also received recommendations from U.S. senators Jon Tester and Steve Daines.

"He’s a great leader," Houlihan said of Fritz. "He’s got perseverance, commitment, and he’s driven; and he’s going to be excellent at the academy if he gets in."

He's still waiting to hear back from the Academy, and he hopes to find out his standing after the New Year.

"To get those nominations, you have to have a lot of leadership opportunities and abilities and coordinate and show you’re a strong leader," Fritz said.

He has.

Among his numerous cabinet positions in high school clubs, and charitable fund raisers, Fritz was a Link Crew leader. Link Crew helps incoming freshman essentially assimilate into high school life.

"If they have any questions they can come to us and just help them get comfortable at the school. We’re available all throughout the rest of our high school career," Fritz explained.

It's something that is particularly close to Fritz, as the now-senior was not only new to Hellgate but somewhat new to town when he stepped foot on campus.

Fritz and his family had moved to Missoula from Florida, and Colorado before that, and New Zealand before that. It was on the island — a 26-hour flight back to the United States, Fritz points out — that he learned to swim.

They moved to Montana to be closer to family in the area, and all of a sudden the born-leader had new waters to navigate.

"... Moving my entire life, being able to assess different situations and jump right into them head on and be successful I wasn’t too nervous," he said.

Just like he did last year at the state swim meet.

This year for the Knights should be no different.

Kyle Houghtaling can be reached by email at kyle.houghtaling@missoulian.com or on Twitter @khotel.

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