All signs pointed to the Kelly Walsh boys swimming and diving team having a down year this season.
After all, the Trojans had to replace graduated seniors Jeremy Young, Colin O’Neill, Ethen Smith and Chase Hull off last year’s team that placed third at state. Kelly Walsh returned just one swimmer – junior Kade Hillibush in the 100 breaststroke – who finished in the top five of an individual event.
Add in the fact the Trojans spent the offseason without a home pool due to the fact the KW Pool was under construction until mid-October and it was easy to discount their chances.
Those doubters never accounted for the Trojan Army.
“I think the story to our season has been our depth,” head coach Bridger Miller said. “Across the board we have 19 state qualifiers and that says a lot about our team. We don’t necessarily have any superstars, but we have a lot of really good kids.”
The Trojans took advantage of their depth two weeks ago at the Class 4A West Regionals. Kelly Walsh won the meet despite winning only one event – the 400 free relay.
Miller is hoping that depth will pay off again this weekend at the Wyoming State High School Swimming and Diving Championships in Gillette.
“I think the way we’ll be successful this weekend is getting those kids qualified after prelims and getting them into the finals to score points (on Saturday),” he said.
Even though Kelly Walsh didn’t win any individual events at the regional meet, it did put 12 swimmers into the finals. Senior Kameron Westerberg (50 free, 200 free) and junior Hunter Hasskamp (100 back) both earned runner-up finishes as did junior diver Calvin Speth.
The Trojans also grabbed four third- and two fourth-place finishes.
“With us having ‘the army,’ as we like to call it, we’re strong in many events,” Westerberg said. “We’re able to put swimmers in events where we know they’re going to do well and we can put them in a lot of events.”
Kelly Walsh’s 200 medley and 200 free relay teams also placed second.
“I’m really confident in our relays,” Miller said. “We’re looking to get top three in all of those.”
The Trojans will likely need to finish near the top in the relays and push as many swimmers as they can through to the finals to help offset the top-level talent of defending state champion Gillette.
The Camels held off Laramie for the East Regional crown and have one of the state’s best swimmers in Gunnar Poley. The sophomore enters the state meet with the top times in the 50 free, the 100 free and the 100 back.
Considering what the Trojans have overcome this season, though, Miller remains optimistic about his team’s chances.
“I don’t think teams around the state knew what we were going to look like,” Miller said. “We can be proud of what we’ve accomplished already this season, so this weekend we just need to go have fun because we don’t have anything to lose.
“Our kids worked really hard to get to where they’re at and I foresee them having a great state meet. We’ve got some tricks up our sleeves and I think we’re going to surprise some people.”
“I’ve been waiting for this meet all season,” he said. “For us to be where we are now when we didn’t even have a pool during the summer is impressive.”
Once again, the state title is expected to go through Lander.
The Tigers have won 20 consecutive state championships and are the favorites to extend their streak to 21 after winning the West Regional by 82 points over runner-up Powell.
“I think that culture (in Lander) is one of the best in the state,” Kelly Walsh head coach Bridger Miller said. “They work hard and they earn the success that they’ve had for so many years, and the community has really helped their success.”
Rawlins was equally impressive in winning the East Regional, but the Outlaws probably don’t have the depth to knock off the Tigers.
Lander enters the state meet with the top times in all three relay events and freshman Ryan Brinda (100 free) and sophomore Caleb Huelskamp (500 free) have the fastest times in their respective events.
While the Tigers are favored to win the ream race, the swimmer to watch is Kemmerer’s Carl Krell. The junior is the two-time defending state champ in the 100 fly – he set the 3A state record with a time of 50.89 seconds last year – and enters with the top times in the 200 free, the 200 IM, the 50 free and the 100 fly.