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Empire swimmers heading to prestigious college programs

By PHIL BARBER
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

Speaking by phone recently, Cardinal Newman’s Taylor Young laughed when asked about another top local swimmer, Analy’s Rebecca Baxley.

“I’m actually at her house right now,” Young said.

Close friends and club teammates — first with Piranha Swimming and, more recently, with Neptune Swimming — even as they became high school opponents, Young and Baxley must now begin to prepare for a separation. Baxley will swim for the University of Texas in Austin next fall, while Young will be closer to home at UC Berkeley — two prestigious swim programs, two vibrant cultural centers, 1,750 miles apart.

“We’ve been best friends for a long time,” Baxley said. “It’s cool both of us committed to great schools, and we’ll compete against each other next year.”

The Cal women are currently ranked No. 2 in the nation. The Texas women are No. 5.

For Baxley, it was the feeling she got from her prospective Texas teammates that swung her decision. She must have been really impressed with Austin. She chose UT over two other schools despite waiting out a bomb threat during her visit to campus.

“Everyone talks about that feeling when you know it’s the place,” Baxley said. “I knew Texas was the inside place. I visited Wisconsin and Florida, and I didn’t know if I’d feel same way. It just reassured me in my decision.”

After narrowing her choices to four schools — Arizona, Auburn and USC were the others — Young made her family happy by selecting Cal, where her meets are a car ride away. But Young was swayed more by Berkeley’s academic reputation than its proximity. She also got plenty of positive feedback from Golden Bears alumna and Montgomery High grad Amanda Sims, who has been working with Neptune Swimming.

Young now joins the most talked-about recruiting class in college swimming. Perhaps a week before Young committed, Missy Franklin announced she would compete for Cal. The Centennial, Colo., native won four gold medals at the London Olympic Games this past summer, including individual medals in the 100- and 200-meter backstroke.

“Just hearing about her and watching her on TV, it’s pretty crazy to think I’ll be swimming and competing with her,” Young said.
“It’s really amazing.”

Young, a breaststroker, will be called upon to help fill the lane left empty by the graduation of Caitlin Leverenz, the reigning NCAA champion in both the 200 breast and the 200 individual medley. Baxley’s specialty is the backstroke.

“As swimmers, it’s fortunate they don’t really excel at the same stroke, so they don’t really compete against each other in something they care a lot about,” Neptunes head coach Dan Greaves said. “So I think it’s nice for them that they can carve out a niche.”

Young and Baxley differ in more than their stroke of choice. According to Greaves, they have very different personalities, too.
“They’re quite opposite, actually,” he said. “Taylor is very quiet. She kind of keeps to herself a lot. Rebecaa — how would I say this? She’s just a socialite. She just likes to be around people and joke around a lot. Taylor has a very good sense of humor, too.

But she’s really dry-witted. She’s a little more one-on-one, whereas I think Rebecca really enjoys the group.”

Though both are excited about their looming college careers, they still have six months of high school left, and one more prep swim season in the spring. Both made their marks in their respective leagues — Young in the North Bay League, Baxley in the Sonoma County League — and then at the North Coast Section championship meet last year. Young was second in the 100 breast and fourth in the 200 IM at the 2012 NCS meet; Baxley was fifth in the 100 freestyle and sixth in the 100 back.

The two friends both qualified for the 2012 Olympic trials in Omaha, Neb., where Young finished 43rd in the 100 breast and Baxley was 93rd in the 100 back (an event won by Franklin). It’s a little different this year, without the pressure of gearing up for the Olympic trials, or of choosing a university.

“Honestly, if you’re talking about the high school season, I’m mainly looking to have fun in my last season, and to make sure the whole team enjoys it,” Baxley said. “I’d like to have more variety. I know in college you focus on a few events. I’d like to work on the 200 backstroke. Last year, with the Olympic trials, I was really focusing on the 100.”

Greaves has coached most of Sonoma County’s best high school swimmers over the past eight years. Sending them off to college never loses its luster, though he admitted to holding a special place in the pool for Baxley and Young.

“I think these two make me even more proud,” Greaves said. “If you were to ask them a few years ago if they’d be able to swim at these programs, they’d probably have given you a reply like, ‘Stop. That’s a joke.’ I think they put in a lot of hard work to get there, and that’s really exciting. It makes us all proud.”

You can reach Staff Writer Phil Barber at 521-5263 or phil.barber@pressdemocrat.com.