The level of competition is rising in Cook Inlet Conference girls diving.
Of the 16 girls battling at the Bartlett pool in Thursday's preliminary round of the conference championships, several own the skills to win a title and they are all pushing each other to new heights with a friendly antagonism.
"I dive with most of these girls year round and they're all super sweet," said Bartlett junior Alexandria Soto, who is in fourth place with 157.6 points. "Competing with them at a high level is a lot of pressure, but a lot of fun."
The last two seasons belonged to 2013 Chugiak grad Kaitlin Friedli, who won back-to-back CIC and state titles, and now dives for Colgate University. But this season brings a combination of experience and new talent that lends a little mystery to the CIC title chase. Five dives into an 11-dive competition, the top five divers are separated by 34.25 points, roughly the equivalent of a great dive.
Eagle River junior Mackenzie Smith, a first-year diver, is coming off an all-around title in last weekend's CIC gymnastic championships and is in third with 158.4 points. Her proficiency in gymnastics translated well to the aerial maneuvers required for diving, once she overcame her fear of hitting the water.
Smith was glad to be able to devote all her practice time to diving this week and form a strategy with Eagle River coach Chad Frichtl.
"Chad says we all have man dives this year, 'cause girls tend to do easier dives, but this year, they're up there with the guys, so it's really exciting to see how the girls have progressed," Smith said.
The girls and boys all performed five dives in Thursday's preliminary round, and will take a day off while the swimmers compete in preliminaries Friday before performing three dives in Saturday morning's semifinals and three more in Saturday afternoon's finals. Each CIC champion automatically qualifies for next week's state meet in Juneau.
Divers tend to save their most difficult dives for the finals, but there were some dynamic twists and turns attempted in the prelims, which usually feature more conservative dives. Smith didn't hesitate in selecting her favorite from the day, a front two-and-a-half executed by Eagle River sophomore Jami Stone, who leads the competition with 189.35 points.
"That was awesome," said Smith. "It had such a high (degree of difficulty) level and she almost ripped it. It was perfect."
Stone, also a gymnast, was thrilled with her overall performance Thursday and said her favorite dive was a back double-pike that requires leaving the 1-meter springboard backwards and flipping twice in the pike position before entering the water feet first.
Stone likes to learn from watching her competitors and said the competitive tone set early in the season has forced her to add tougher dives to her repertoire. One of her favorite divers to watch is South junior Sierra Panting, who finished second at last season's CIC meet and is in second again, with 166.85 points.
"Sierra is really good," Stone said. "I love how high she gets. It's so pretty."
Judges favor divers who establish good height off the board, Stone said, and elevation makes it easier to execute maneuvers. Seven judges line the pool for each dive and each assigns a score on a 10-point scale. The top two scores and the bottom two are tossed out, and a diver's score is determined by a formula that averages the three remaining scores and multiplies that score with the degree of difficulty.
West freshman Kendall Wagner, currently in fifth place, looks up to many of the more experienced divers and gleans whatever she can. She said her head turns any time she hears a diver is about to attempt a degree of difficulty above 2.2, or if the public announcer's description of the dive sounds complicated, she knows it's tough.
The biggest lesson Wagner has learned is to remain confident and relaxed on the board.
"You really can't change the past and whenever you dive, it's a new chance to do better," she said. "It is one of the most mentally challenging sports."
Reach Jeremy Peters at email@example.com or 257-4335.
Cook Inlet Conference Championships
1-meter diving preliminaries
At Bartlett Pool
1) Stone, Jami, Eagle River, 189.35; 2) Panting, Sierra, South, 166.85. 3) Smith, MacKenzie, Eagle River, 158.40; 4) Soto, Alex, Bartlett, 157.60; 5) Wagner, Kendall, West, 155.10; 6) Burbank, Megan, South, 146.80. 7) Lockard, Lara, South, 141.80. 8) Haxby, Katie, West, 130.60; 9) Bookout, Brandy, Chugiak, 108.10; 10) Peterson, Olivia, Chugiak, 105.40; 11) Parish, Megan, Dimond, 104.40; 12) Young, Hali, Chugiak, 96.85; 13) Lombard, Emily, South, 94.20; 14) Sivitz, Erin, West, 82.80; 15) Monaghan, Sarah, Dimond, 72.45; 16) Kroon, Kelsey, Dimond, 59.60.
1) Knutson, Connor, South, 170.65; 2) Fugere, Shawn, Chugiak, 163.40; 3) Desatoff, Austin, Dimond, 160.40; 4) Madland, Atticus, Dimond, 153.70; 5) Sivitz, Jeremy, West, 152.15; 6) Rochon, Austin, Chugiak, 142.25; 7) Randall, John, Eagle River, 136.65; 8) Dudley, Aaron, South, 131.90; 9) McVeigh, Kyle, South, 131.80; 10) Totten, Colin, West, 131.70; 11) Harris, Scott, Dimond, 131.35; 12) Caudle, Nathan, Eagle River, 124.35; 13) Pugh, Korey, South, 117.35; 14) Schoff, Robert, South, 111.60; 15) Gates, Chase, Chugiak, 103.75; 16) Camarena, Manuel, South, 75.40.
By JEREMY PETERS