There’s no denying it, the Missoula Hellgate boys and girls are the clear-cut favorites to win the Class AA state swim meet in Great Falls on Friday and Saturday.
The defending champs three times over haven’t lost a meet this year.
But the Bozeman boys and girls, runners-up each of the last three years, are gaining on the Knights. At the Missoula Invitational on Jan. 21, the Bozeman girls were just 22 points behind Hellgate, 495-473.
"Nobody can discount what Bozeman’s doing," said Helen Houlihan, who coaches Hellgate, Missoula Sentinel and Missoula Big Sky/Loyola. "They have a great program, a great coach, a great group of kids and a lot of them are training year-round. They’re as eager to win as we are.
"Everybody is hungry and you know what they say, any given Sunday somebody can turn up and be a winner."
Saturday’s state finals still favor the Knights, though.
Hellgate’s depth makes it tough to beat at a meet where team points are awarded out 12 places. The Knights have 55 swimmers on their squad and at least four swimmers with a top-12 time this season in all but one event. With each team at state getting four entries per event, the Knights are poised to rack up major points.
"We do have a little more depth than Bozeman does, that’s going to be our strength," Houlihan said. "We do have three and four kids in each event and those kids are going to score points for us and that’s the difference."
On the boys’ side, Cale Berkoff is a defending champ in the 100-yard backstroke and 100-yard butterfly. He’ll be back to defend both titles, although he’s seeded No. 2 behind Billings Senior’s Ethan Harder. Berkoff bested Harder by .01 seconds in the race at state a year ago.
“(Harder) did really well at (junior nationals) this year, he just did fantastic,” Houlihan said of Harder, who finished third in the 200-yard backstroke. “We have to watch for him, he’s tough.”
Berkoff also rejoins two relay teams, including the 200 IM relay and 400-yard freestyle, both of which broke the state record last year. Matthew Fritz, was on both record-breaking relay teams too, and is back for another crack. He’ll also square off with defending 200 IM state champ Adam Zimmer of Missoula Big Sky. The two are the top seeded swimmers in the race.
Cale’s sister, Katharine, is coming off an All-American season, and could be racing for the record books in the 100 back. She’s also the defending champ in the 100 free, though she’ll be racing in the 200 free this year instead.
Then there’s Mari Aoki, a defending champ in the 200 IM and 500 free and a slew of other Knights. Truly the list of expected state scorers goes on and on.
“Bella Seagrave is a freshman and she’s just really solid. Ellee Becker, her sister Claire Becker and her brother Dane Becker, who’s a freshman, we’re going to see great performances out of all three of those kids,” Houlihan said. “We have senior Avery Vernon. She’s really strong in the breast stroke. We’ve got Julian Fee, who’s a longer distance swimmer but can do a lot of different things, she’s real versatile. Kelsey Ammons, who’s a sprinter and she’s solid…”
There were more, but the rest of Houlihan’s team – Sentinel and Big Sky/Loyola – needed their fair cut, too.
For Big Sky, Zimmer is an All-American and state record holder in the 100 breaststroke. He’s also holds the state record in the 200 IM. He’s the far and away favorite to win both events.
Houlihan also mentioned Big Sky’s Joseph Szekely, Gabe Jourdonnais, and Zack Tyree from Loyola as potential placers. For the Big Sky girls, watch out for Katie Fagg and Ellie D'Amico.
“…Adam has some friends out there and they’re going to do well,” she said.
For Sentinel, sophomore Keidon Reynolds has a Top 5 seed time in the 100 breaststroke and 100 butterfly. Audrey Fero and Andrea Porch for the Sentinel girls and Jack Wolgamot and Thomas Nielson on the Spartans’ boy’s teams are among the names for the purple and gold to keep an eye on.
Rounding out Western Montana, Columbia Falls’ Colton Babcock is a defending state champ and will help carry his Wildcats, who are also returning champs on the boys’ side. Kalispell Glacier’s Nate Burnham is seeded just behind Hellgate’s Darragh Mahns for the top spot in the 50 free.
Preliminaries begin at 11 a.m. on Friday at the Great Falls High Pool. The finals will be held on Saturday.