High School Sports

A classic combination: P.B.N.J. propels Seward boys to state after first regional swimming title

The 2022 Seward High School swim team, from left: Iver Gates, Jackson Bird, Ben Ambrosiani, Paxton Hill, Nick Ambrosiani, Esme Wilder.

The Seward High School boys swim team overcame long odds to claim its first regional title last weekend thanks in large part to a classic combination — its four upperclassmen nicknamed P.B.N.J. because of the first initials of their first names.

Junior twin brothers Ben and Nick Ambrosiani and seniors Paxton Hill and Jackson Bird were able to sweep all three of the relay races with record-breaking performances.

“They set three new Seward Seahawk records in the 200 medley relay, the 200 freestyle relay, and the 400 freestyle relay,” Seward volunteer coach Leslie Jacoby said. “They crushed all the old school records.”

Colony and Kodiak have been the main powerhouse programs in Region III for decades and it’s rare for one of the smaller teams to pose a threat to their supremacy.

Early in the season, the team came up with a strategy that required a sacrifice from each member of the group for the betterment of the whole.

“If they were to sacrifice an individual event so that they could do three relays, we could potentially sweep the relays and have those boys go really hard for the relays and maybe just one individual event that would give us a chance at getting more points,” Seward head coach Solomon D’Amico said.

It paid off last weekend when they won all three relays at the regional tournament after being the top seeded relay team for most of the season.

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Nick Ambrosiani finished as region runner-up in the 50 freestyle and his brother Ben finished third in the 100 freestyle. Bird used the momentum from a strong second half of the season to finish as region champion in the 100 breaststroke. Hill continued his dominance in the 100 butterfly by getting crowned region champion as well. Since the relays count for double the amount of points, their first place finishes in all three gave them a narrow lead.

The Seahawks got a clutch finish from their fifth team member and lone freshman, Iver Gates, to edge out Colony 66 to 64 in the final tally.

“We knew he would have to try to sneak into the A-Final in a six-lane pool that gets our team one point,” D’Amico said. “He managed to do that and it ended up being the difference between us tying Colony.”

The Knights ended up with a swimmer finishing seventh in the 100 breaststroke and Gates edged him out by finishing sixth for the two-point swing that completed the upset.

“It just happened to break our way with the strategy and everything,” D’ Amico said. “It could have easily not worked and we would’ve been just as happy.”

While they weren’t the smallest team with schools like Unalaska and Cordova having fewer swimmers, Seward managed to make the biggest splash when it counted most.

Seward High School only has 150 students and the swimming season begins and runs through the same time as other popular sports such as football and cross country. As a result, the program can never field nearly as big of a team as the others in their region or around the state which makes what this year’s Seahawk boys squad so phenomenal.

“You don’t have a huge pool to pull your athletes from,” Jacoby said. “So much comes down to the dedication of these kids and the coaching.”

The team is excited to be heading into this weekend’s state tournament with the opportunity to race against the best swimmers from across the Last Frontier.

“We’re really looking forward to getting to face them,” D’Amico said. “Hopefully we race fast and they race fast too because everybody is faster when there’s better competition.”

Even though they pulled off a seemingly miraculous feat to claim their first region title, the Seahawks don’t expect to have a shot at the state team title but still want to have a strong showing nonetheless.

“We don’t have any illusions of being competitive on the team scene at state,” D’ Amico said. “It was big enough for us just to win regions and hopefully at state we show up and swim to our capabilities. We’ll live with and be proud of the results however they come.”

Olympic inspiration has led to spike in interest

A lot of young Seward swimmers’ interest in the sport was either sparked or reinforced by Jacoby’s daughter, Lydia, whose tremendous success at the Olympics in 2021 that included winning gold and silver medals.

Leslie Jacoby has been involved in the Seward Tsunami Swim Club for a little over nine years and her daughter first joined at six years old. The club was first established in 1988 and it’s been an integral part of the Seward community for youths ranging from kindergarten to high school.

“You have this wide range of students that can be involved and for a small town, we’ve been incredibly fortunate to have incredible coaches,” Jacoby said.

D’Amico has a degree in kinesiology and minor in coaching and assistant coach Meghan O’Leary swam for the club and the University of Fairbanks.

Prior to Lydia’s triumph at the Olympic Games, the club had between 45 to 55 kids annually. But they were up to 80 last year and anticipate more this year after the high school season is over.

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“The community support for Lydia and these boys and the parent support has been incredible,” Jacoby said. “We’re a really special town and this team is tight.”

D’Amico said that swim club participation levels around the state as a whole are between 15-20%. In his Seward alone, the Tsunami club has seen a 30% spike in their numbers.

“We have established institutional knowledge and work ethic and that tone has been passed on from one swimmer generation to the other,” D’ Amico said.

Will the South girls continue to reign supreme at state?

The Seward boys weren’t the only team in Alaska to pull off a stunning upset in a regional tournament this past weekend. The South Anchorage girls team broke Dimond’s stranglehold over Region IV by claiming a title with incredible finishes and career-best performances from several swimmers. The Lynx will be looking to avenge their regional defeat this weekend by securing their seventh straight state championship excluding the COVID-19 year in 2020 when no state meet was held.

On the boys side, Service will be looking to win its first state title since winning back-to-back championships in 2018 and 2019. They were favored to win regions and avoided an upset to claim the Region IV title and likely be challenged fiercely by the Dimond boys, who have finished second in state every year since 2015 when they last won it all.


Josh Reed

Josh Reed is a sports reporter for the Anchorage Daily News. He's a graduate of West High School and the University of North Carolina at Pembroke.

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