JUNEAU — By the time Service junior Tomasz Balaban had jumped in the water as the third leg of the final Alaska state swimming and diving event — the boys 400-yard freestyle relay — he knew the team was swimming with a win under its belt.
“When I dove in, we were ahead by four body lengths,” he said. “I assumed it was a done deal.”
Balaban was right, and the boys took home not just a win in the final relay — but the entire meet. For the second year in a row, the Cougars were crowned the champions at the 2023 Alaska state team swimming and diving championship on Saturday in Juneau. The two-day event was the first time the meet had been held in Alaska’s capital city since 2016.
The location of the meet wasn’t the only major change-up this year. For the first time in seven years, the Dimond girls team handed over their multi-year reign as the state champion team to the Juneau-Douglas High School: Yadaa.at Kalé girls. The new champs were followed in overall points by Thunder Mountain, Eagle River and South Anchorage. The Lynx ended their season with a sixth-place finish.
Just a week earlier during the Region IV championship, the South Anchorage girls had foreshadowed the state meet results, edging out the Dimond girls to take the regional title. The Dimond boys had similarly upset the Service boys at regions, outpacing the defending champs 423-420. On Saturday, however, the Dimond boys finished behind Chugiak, Eagle River and Service to end the season with a fourth-place finish.
Nevertheless, Dimond head coach Scott O’Brien said he is “definitely proud” of how his team performed overall during the two-day championship.
“It was great, the kids all came in and did their best, and that’s all you can ask,” he said. “We had a lot of good team effort, hopefully, this motivates some of our younger classmen.”
Dimond senior Caroline Waters said swimming at a new pool is always a challenge, noting that the last time she swam in the Juneau pool was six years ago. Despite the change, Waters ended her high school career on a high note. One of her top individual performances included finishing second behind Eagle River’s Reese Woodward in the girls 100-yard butterfly with a time of 57.38 seconds to Woodward’s 57.14 seconds.
“I feel like I struggle performing in environments that are not what I’m used to,” she said. “I hoped to do better than I did but I stayed consistent. There were a lot of expectations behind this meet, so it was stressful but also exciting.”
Service junior captain Ben Price and senior captain Conrad Fawcett agreed and said the new pool took a bit of adjusting to get used to but it was a nice change of pace. On Saturday before securing the 400-yard freestyle relay win alongside his teammates, Fawcett safely defended his 500-yard freestyle individual title after winning it in 2022 and securing the regional title just a week earlier in Anchorage. He called winning the final event “a cherry on top” and the perfect way to end his high school career.
“It was fantastic, it was our homecoming — this is the last this group is ever going to swim together,” Fawcett said while hugging his fellow teammates after the race.
Price similarly took home the individual title for the boys 100-yard freestyle, a title he also secured during regions. He also won the 200 IM to earn a pair of individual titles. Senior Preston Kwon was edged out in the 100-yard breaststroke and 100-yard butterfly by TMHS senior PJ Foy, who broke his own state record in both races.
Service coach Ben Kitchen said he knew Kwon would land in the top two spots alongside Foy, who he described as an “exceptional swimmer,” and said he was happy with Kwon’s performance along with the rest of the team.
“The meet went really well — it’s hard to come on the road and swim in unfamiliar circumstances, but they really stepped up and did a great job,” Kitchen said. “It was just toughness across the board.”
South Anchorage coach Kenny Fox said the state championship is always a “high-powered meet” and this year was no exception. He said he could feel the team’s anxiety heighten when they got to Juneau, noting that being able to be comfortable swimming in a new environment is a “hard thing to learn.”
“They handled it like champs, though,” he said. “They have swum these races a million times, but this time it is just in a different place.”
He pointed to junior Zoe Fencil and sophomore Zoe Zipsir as standout swimmers during the two-day meet and applauded the team’s six graduating seniors.
“That’s half our team,” he said. “You hope for the best, but they’ll be leaving some big shoes to fill, but I believe in our team and I believe we’ll be able to fill those shoes.”
Eagle River’s Lola Woodward bested Fencil in a close race to win the 100 backstroke. The Woodward sisters — Lola and Reese — teamed up with Sophia Trembath and Bryn Baldwin to take the 200 freestyle relay.
Eagle River’s Wes Mank was a double-winner, taking home the 200 freestyle and the 100 backstroke. He also swam the first leg in Eagle River’s winning 200-yard freestyle relay team.
State Swimming and Diving Meet
1. Juneau Douglas High School 101; 2. Thunder Mountain High School 90; 3. Eagle River High School 75; 4. South Anchorage High School 70; 5. Colony High School 53; 6. Dimond Swim and Dive 47; 7. Kodiak High School 32; 8. Robert Service High School 23; 9. Soldotna Stars 20; 10. West Valley High School 19.
1. Robert Service High School 122; 2. Eagle River High School 64; 3. Chugiak High School 62; 4. Dimond Swim and Dive 2023 54; 5. Ketchikan High School 52; 6. Seward High School Swim Team 45; 7. West Valley High School 31; 8. Colony High School 28; 9. Kodiak High School 23; 10. Thunder Mountain High School 18.
(Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly identified Service junior Ben Price as swimming the third leg of the 400-yard freestyle relay. Price swam the first leg and Service junior Tomasz Balaban swam the third leg of the championship winning relay.)